ELYRIA — Every team takes on an identity of its own and veteran Elyria High coach Ken Fenik has been calling his 2014 Pioneers his “Wow” team.
It’s not “wow” that his team won a district championship — Elyria has accomplished as much in 10 straight seasons and 14 times in Fenik’s 20 years as coach. The “wow” factor is that a team with just one healthy senior, catcher Kaitlyn Laseke, and only two everyday players — pitcher Elizabeth Ellis and first basemen Madison Fullmer batting above .350 — has been able to make it back to Clyde, the site of the Division I regional tournament.
Elyria takes on Oregon Clay (28-2) in the regional semifinals Wednesday.
“Everybody was doubting us this season, even coach Fenik had doubts if we’d be back in this position again,” junior designated player Alex Dick said. “That’s what made this year’s district tournament so special because we were able to prove everybody wrong.”
The turning point in Elyria’s season may have been Dick’s eighth-inning two-run home run that gave the Pioneers a 7-5 win at Medina on May 5. Going into that game, Elyria had lost three of its last six, with the doubters looking as though they might be right. Since the Medina win, the Pioneers are 8-0.
“I knew we had the talent to win but it was just a matter of it all coming together and happening at the right time,” centerfielder Jessica Sito said. “Everybody started to really want it and accept their roles.”
Sito is the epitome of the role players that populate Elyria’s roster. She is still looking for her first hit of the season. What she has done is take away a number of hits from opponents with her work in center field. She’s used her speed to come off the bench and score 11 runs as a pinch runner.
Fenik said as a far back as a year ago he wondered if this year’s team would have what it takes to make it back to Clyde. It was midway through the season when Fenik and the rest of the coaching staff were forced to reshuffle the lineup after shortstop and leading hitter Kandis Laseke suffered a broken collarbone. That’s when the team really came together.
“We had to totally revamp at the point,” Fenik said. “We made changes in the infield, the outfield and behind the plate. It’s a process, like building to see what group of nine or 10 players can help you at the same time. This team, more than any other I’ve coached, the roles people are playing and the ways people are contributing to the team is just super.”
One of the players with the biggest of roles is the sophomore Ellis. She has started 26 of 28 games in the pitcher’s circle, compiling an 18-5 record and 1.90 ERA. Ellis is also contributing at the plate, batting .369 with a team-leading 11 doubles and 19 RBIs.
“It was difficult putting all the pieces together, but now it seems like everything fell into place,” Ellis said. “Everybody thought it would be our down year so we didn’t feel like there was any pressure on us. We just worked hard, believed in what coach Fenik was telling us and now we are seeing it start to work.
“It took a while for everyone to accept and feel comfortable with their roles, but once that happened, we’ve started to have a lot of success.”
At first, Kaitlyn Laseke’s .307 batting average does not seem overly impressive. But when her team-leading 15 walks and six sacrifice hits are factored in, it’s evident she is one of the most productive hitters on the team.
“Last year’s team was more wild and crazy, this year’s team is more calm and serious,” Laseke said. “I thought going into the season that some of the younger players might get scared and back down in tough situations, but I have been really happy to see how they have responded to tough situations.”
In 2013, it was Elyria’s senior-laden team that beat a young Oregon Clay squad 4-1 in the regional semifinal. This time around the tables are turned as a veteran Eagles team brings 10 returning letter winners to face the youthful Pioneers.
“All you want is an opportunity to go regionals because in one game anything can happen,” Fenik said. “Earlier in the year, I wasn’t so sure we would get that, but everyone bought into when I told them, ‘It’s the little pieces that make the big sweet pie,’ so here we are again.”
Contact Todd Shapiro at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHO: Elyria Pioneers vs. No. 5 Oregon Clay Eagles
WHAT: Division I regional semifinals
WHEN: Wednesday, 5 p.m.
WHERE: Clyde High School, Clyde
RADIO: WEOL 930-AM or streaming online