Lady Bears softball team’s magical run ends in the Final Four

Yaneek Smith

Press Sports Editor

When the Gibsonburg girls softball team lost midseason games to Hopewell-Loudon and Lakota a little less than two months ago, both by scores of 10-0, something needed to change.
At that point, it looked like the Lady Bears would have trouble winning a sectional championship, much less a regional championship.
A heart-to-heart discussion between the coaches and players took place, and the coach, Sarah Gruner, who played for the Bears when they finished as the Division IV state runner-up in 2004 — following three consecutive state championships — moved her players around to play different positions against Woodmore in the following game in an effort to give each player an appreciation of what their teammates were up against.
Mariah McNett (.447, 5 HR, 28 RBI) was the center fielder; Aryah Ritchie (.250, 16 R, 11 RBI) played second; Jenna Bloomfield (.458, 8 HR, 26 RBI), who will continue her career at the University of Toledo, hit third and pitched; Cheyenne Reese (.383, 1 HR, 21 RBI) was the catcher; Emily Henderson (.303, 19 R, 18 RBI) played first; Ansley Fleming (.346, 1 HR, 17 RBI) was the shortstop; Madalynn Hannigan (.212, 14 R, 4 RBI) was the third baseman; Leah Hall (.227, 14 R, 12 RBI) played left field and Karley Mendoza (.238, 18 R, 10 RBI) was the right fielder.
It’s clear that the strategy paid off, a result of Gruner pushing the right buttons in an effort to drastically change the narrative.
“There was a point in the season where we just weren't getting it. We weren't backing up plays, staying on our toes, or creeping in on the pitch; we were becoming too comfortable or even lazy, if you will. I needed the girls to understand all of the positions and not just their own, so we mixed things up; second went to third, catcher went to short, centerfield became the catcher, etc.,” said Gruner. “This opened up their eyes to the responsibilities of their teammates and ultimately made them better at their own positions. It was a hard decision to make at the time, but coming off of some bad losses it was something we decided needed to be done. It was super successful and made us a better team.
“Each and every player on this team has put in extra work outside of what my coaching staff has asked of them. Jenna and Cheyenne do a fantastic job and the team trusts them. Cheyenne has really stepped up as a leader in the second half of the season. Leah, Mariah, and Karley, our outfielders, are constantly moving on every play and they have turned bad possibilities into positive outcomes. Leah has improved exponentially this year. With a strong pitcher like Jenna, I think those three sometimes get lost in the background because they don't get many plays. They have come in clutch for us in tight situations.”
Gibsonburg did lose to the Wildcats before reeling off 11 wins in the next 12 games.
After the strong finish to the regular season, the Bears opened with 20-6 sectional final win over Sandusky St. Mary topped Lakota, 5-0 and Danbury, 4-3 in the district final, advancing to the regional at Berea. Gibsonburg then defeated Southington Chalker, 5-2, and Vienna Mathews, 5-2, to earn its matchup against overwhelming favorite Strasburg-Franklin.
In the regional semifinals, SC took a 1-0 lead in the second inning before Ritchie hit a fly ball and an error by the Wildcat center fielder, allowing Gibsonburg to tie the score. In the fourth inning, Hannigan led off with a triple, scored on a single by Fleming and Hall, Mendoza and McNett all walked, pushing the lead to 3-1.
Bloomfield struck out 14 batters and went 2-for-3 at the plate with two RBIs.
The Bears punched their ticket to the final four with the win over VM behind two home runs and three RBIs from McNett, and Bloomfield allowed two runs on three hits with 14 strikeouts and two walks in seven innings to get the win.
Gibsonburg fell to S-F, 3-1, in the state semifinals, putting up the biggest fight the Tigers faced in the tournament, and S-F beat Hopewell-Loudon, 8-2, to win the championship.
The team can now cherish the memory as a banner commemorating its regional championship will be hung in the gymnasium.
“The main thrill of the ride was seeing the excitement of the girls as they experienced each moment along the way. Seeing the community rally around the team reminded me of my own experience at state 20 years ago, and it was exciting to see the girls experience the same atmosphere now,” said Gruner. “This team never gave up. There were some doubters, for sure. However, the girls put in the work to make sure they were ready to help the team. They asked to come in before school to hit and some stayed after practice for extra reps. I'm not surprised by the run we made because this team put in the work to make it as far as we did. They fought hard.
“It’s an honor to be back and part of Gibsonburg softball again. It’s hard to follow the great coaches that were there before me, so making our run and ultimately adding to our program’s rich history is an even greater honor. This team accomplished so much this year, and I am extremely proud to be their coach.”


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