GREENFORD-The South Range softball team will make its third regional tournament appearance in the last five years on Thursday when the seventh-ranked Raiders take on Independence at 5 p.m. at Massillon Washington High School.
To help his team prepare for the bigger stage, South Range softball coach Don Feren has dipped into the program's recent past.
Tiffin University sophomore pitcher Madison Yanek-who pitched the Raiders (24-5) to a regional championship game in 2010-showed up on Monday to share her experience with the current team.
"So many people talk about taking things just one step at a time," Feren said. "But Madison told the players to forget about that and dive into this week with both feet. She talked about going in there to regionals fully expecting to win instead of showing up just happy to be there."
The alumni contribution didn't end there. On Tuesday, 10 former Raiders showed up to practice with the team.
"It's valuable when you have girls who have been through the program that have a willingness to come back and help the current players," Feren said. "I sent a bunch of texts out on Sunday and got 10 responses very quickly. That's special. It tells you a lot about the program."
The Raiders hope to put the experience to good use against a solid Independence team on Thursday.
The Blue Devils won the North Ridgeville district championship with a 6-3 victory over top-seeded Garfield Heights Trinity and come in with a record of 16-4. They finished second in the Chagrin Valley Conference Metro Division behind Cuyahoga Heights-which is ranked sixth in Div. IV and also won a district championship.
"I think they would have been right there with us in our conference and I think we would have been right with them in their conference," Feren said. "They are not at the level of some of the teams we played at Myrtle Beach or at the Prebis tournament, those were bigger schools. I think they would have fit nicely in the Mahoning Valley Invitational we hosted."
The Blue Devils are led by junior catcher Halle Dorko who made first team all-conference and poses a dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup to go with superb defensive skills.
"She's their best player," Feren said. "She is a great receiver behind the plate, has a really strong arm and can really hit."
On the mound, Independence is led by junior Victoria Sirna, who does not throw overly hard but relies on a solid changeup. Sirna was also first-team all-conference, but as a utility player.
"She is a very good pitcher and has a deceptive changeup," Feren said. "She will try and keep us off-balance."
Sirna will try and subdue a Raider offense that Feren has called the best in his time at South Range. The Raiders have hit 31 home runs as a team, with 16 coming from senior shortstop Stevie Taylor and eight from junior centerfielder Jordan Youngs.
"No question this is the best hitting team I've had here," Feren said. "Up and down the lineup we've had people contribute all year."
South Range scrimmaged Div. II district champion Poland on Monday. Bulldogs No. 1 starter (and Eastern Illinois recruit Taylor Miokovic threw four innings, as did South Range ace Caragyn Yanek. When both starters left the game, South Range led 4-0, but the Raiders faded late and lost 7-6.
"We both wanted to see some live pitching, and I thought we played well," Feren said. "Both teams played a lot of players and experimented with some different things. The score probably would have been different if we played it exactly like a real game, but it was a good experience."
The Raiders squeaked out victories over tough Newton Falls and Ursuline tams to reach the regional tournament. Feren thinks the team's tough road has prepared them well.
"The competition gets better at regionals, but I think our district was a meat-grinder," Feren said. "I would put it up there with anyone else's in our region. "If we play our game, I don't see a reason to be afraid of anyone."