AUSTINTOWN — With less than a week to go for the softball tournament, teams across the region are picking up games left and right in preparation for the start of the playoffs. This usually leads to interesting matches that you would usually never see.
One of those matchups came on Thursday as Division I Austintown Fitch took on Division IV Mathews in a battle between two of the top teams in their respective divisions. Both teams are also the top seed in the recently released district brackets.
In an end-to-end pitching duel, the Falcons came out on top in a 3-1 win over Mathews.
Despite being three divisions higher than their opponents, Fitch knew they weren’t going to rack up the runs like they’ve done several times already this year. Falcons coach Steven Ward said taking things one run at a time was what made the difference on Thursday.
“We knew they were going to bring a very strong team here. They are always well trained, they always have very strong players, so we knew we were going to play a game. said Ward. “We knew to push a run through, run through, run through. That’s how you win those close matches. Just make the little things happen.
Two of the Mahoning Valley’s top pitchers squared off Thursday. In the circle for Fitch, rookie Sydnie Watts and for Mathews, senior Emma Gates. Each girl has more than 100 strikeouts recorded during the year and is the respective ace of her team.
In the showdown, Watts recorded 14 strikeouts and Gates threw nine.
While it was a duel of pitchers, each pitcher also did some damage to home plate. Late in the fourth, Watts drilled a solo shot to give the Falcons a 2-0 lead. Gates matched it with his own solo shot in the top of the fifth.
Sophomore Ayla Ray capped the scoring late in the fifth, scoring her second run of the afternoon.
The victory improves Fitch to 18-2 on the season. Fitch is yet to lose to a team from Ohio, with both of its losses coming in a spring break tournament. Most Falcons contests have been decided by more than two runs, so Ward won’t complain about getting a battle. He sees it as a win-win.
“That’s wonderful,” he said. “Repeats of play that you can’t really replicate in training. You can’t replicate the great crowd we had here or the pressure of a close game. You don’t get that in training scenarios or in games where it might not be as close. It’s a big win for both teams to get this and work. They’re a very tough team and we’re very happy to have the result that occurred.
It’s not just the Falcons who see this game as a win-win. When Fitch called looking for matches, the Mustangs couldn’t have agreed quicker.
“When they asked us to play I was like ‘Hell yeah'” Mathews coach Tom VanKirk said. “A lot of people were like ‘What are you doing playing them?’ That’s how we improve. We talk about growth all the time with this young team and it’s a growth game right there.
From Mustang’s perspective, this game wasn’t about winning or losing. It was a teaching moment. With the number of underclassmen in Mathews’ roster, VanKirk just wanted them to come out and prove to themselves that they can beat anyone.
“I’m proud of them” he said. “I mean, we’re a very small school and this is a little bigger school. They are very well ranked and very, very, very good with a very, very good pitcher. We just kept our energy throughout and tried to get into position to win the game and our pitcher did the same.
Mathews drops to 15-4 on the season. Before their tournament begins, they will face another of the region’s top pitchers when they face Hubbard on Tuesday. The following day, they will face the winner of Bloomfield and Ashtabula St. John. The winner will advance to the Kinsman District Semi-Finals at Joseph Badger High School.
The Falcons have a doubleheader Saturday at home against Massillon Washington, then close out the regular season with Howland. The day after their regular season finale, Fitch will face the winner of Canton McKinley and Kent Roosevelt on Wednesday.
The top-seeded Falcons are hosting the district tournament this year, so every game they play until a possible regional trip will be a home game.
However, they don’t think about destinations. The only thing on the team’s mind is to max themselves and their performance and drop the cards where they can.
“Our number one goal is to maximize the capacity of our team,” said Ward. That’s exactly what we have to do. We do it and everything else will take care of itself. If each player brings what he is able to bring, we will be a successful team.