MANSFIELD – North central Ohio’s place in high school softball annals is well known.
Hillsdale, Loudonville, Colonel Crawford and Crestline all have traditions when it comes to state tournaments and winning championships. Lexington, Clear Fork, Bucyrus, Ashland, Madison are programs that know successful runs, too.
Unfortunately last year was not one of those times. Of the 30 schools in the News Journal coverage area, no one got out of a district to play in the Sweet 16.
Whether that’s an anomaly or a trend will be determined in May.
Here’s a closer look at the better teams in the area conferences:
• Ohio Cardinal Conference:
Ashland, Clear Fork, Lexington and Madison will make the league chase entertaining.
The Arrows went 19-6 last year as longtime Loudonville coach Bill Herman took over. He brings back am incredibly experienced squad for 2015 with nine letter winners.
Clear Fork coach Jeff Gottfried, meanwhile, just keeps churning out wins as the Colts were 22-8. Clear Fork must replace an all-timer in state steals record holder Taylor Kline and all-league catcher Anna Myers, but its pitching should be more seasoned this year.
Lexington won 18 games a year ago for coach Mike Hamman and returns the area’s best pitcher in All-Ohioan Abbey Sgro and one of the top catchers in Morgan Ziegler.
Madison won 14 games and still has a core of players back from a regional berth two years ago. Freshman McKenzie Mullins could be a budding ace for the Rams this season.
• Northern Ohio League:
Many see the NOL race as wide open which is a good thing for Shelby, Willard and Ontario.
The Whippets have the speed, hitting and defense to compete for a championship, but they will rely on youthful pitching. Willard has great experience, but it needs much better production than it got a year ago. The Warriors don’t have a senior on the roster and will rely on seven freshman to lend them depth at the varsity level.
• Firelands Conference:
Plymouth will prove to be a tough out in the Firelands as coach Troy Keene welcomes back eight letter winners including 15-game winner Addyson Horne, a junior with a 3.18 ERA and 231 strikeouts a year ago. Besides Horne, the Big Red Vikings will put the ball in play with five players who have batted .243 or better in a season.
Like Plymouth, Mapleton also brings back eight veterans with eyes on a conference championship. Crestview and South Central may not win the FC, but they show enough talent to figure into the outcome of who does win the title.
• Mid-Buckeye Conference:
Loudonville was the undefeated league champ a year ago, and while it loses five big-time contributors, the Redbirds still bring back one of the area’s best players in All-Ohio junior catcher and pitcher Sarah Wickline.
Lucas brings back lots of experience, but consistency remains an issue. As for Mansfield Christian, it has a nice group back, but it will be without News Journal Co-Pitcher of the Year Lexi Falde as she now competes at Waynedale.
• Northern 10:
Colonel Crawford and Crestline are coming off unusual losing seasons and both are debuting in a better league as Mohawk, Seneca East, Carey and Upper Sandusky are now involved after the demise of the North Central Conference.
That said, the Eagles and Bulldogs along with Buckeye Central should be much improved in 2015.
• Mid Ohio Athletic Conference Blue Division:
Other than the OCC, the MOAC Blue will be the most entertaining league fight this season. Cardington, Fredericktown, Highland, Mount Gilead and Northmor all feel like they can compete for a championship.
Cardington has five all-leaguers back including All-Ohio junior shortstop Samantha Brininger. Fredericktown returns six starters, including two pitchers with varsity experience. Highland will improve on nine wins from a year ago with four All-MOAC players returning. Mount Gilead has a nucleus of six veterans back. Northmor also has an experienced crew coming back, but it will break in new pitchers.
For a capsule look of all the teams in the area, visit MansfieldNewsJournal.com and it’s Sports tab.
— Rob McCurdy