There’s no need for fire-and-brimstone speeches at this point. So before her team takes the field for the Division III regional championship Saturday, Northwestern softball coach Missy Johnson will keep her pep talk simple.
“I’ll tell them to go out and play like we have been and we’ll be fine,” Johnson said.
Northwestern (26-2, ranked No. 3 in the final AP state poll) takes on Columbus Bishop Ready (13-10, ranked No. 8) in the D-III championship noon Saturday at Wright State University. The winner advances to the state semifinals at 12:30 p.m. Friday at Akron Firestone Stadium.
This is the fourth straight regional tournament for the Warriors — including a pair of D-II appearances — and second straight in the title game. Memories of last year’s stunning 4-2 loss on a home run in the bottom of the seventh linger. But confidence is high for a Northwestern team attempting to reach the state tournament for the eighth time and first since 2000.
“We made it so close last year to going to state. I think that’s on their minds,” Johnson said. “They just want to get the job done this year.”
The Warriors have been getting it done offensively this season. Junior pitcher Jenna Robbins led the Central Buckeye Conference in home runs (13), runs batted in (61) and was fifth in average (.500). She’s one of five Warriors hitting .421 or better along with senior right fielder Maddie Current (.467), senior second baseman Abby Zerkle (.457), sophomore third baseman Miranda Gillman (.423) and junior shortstop Jamie Rutherford (.421).
Add in junior catcher Macie Crew (.388) and sophomore first baseman Bry White (.365) and Northwester is hitting .394 as a team.
“Lately we have been doing very well offensively,” Robbins said. “I’m proud of my team for that. It’s just been great.”
“They definitely take pride in their hitting,” Johnson said. “It’s nice having leadership on the team that (comes back to the dugout and) says be careful of this pitch or watch out for that one. That helps.”
Northwestern has outscored five tournament opponents 56-2 with four shutouts, including Wednesday’s 7-0 win against Hamilton Badin in the regional semis. Ready has outscored its four postseason opponents 29-12 and beat West Liberty-Salem 4-2 in the semis. The two games prior were both one-run victories.
Silver Knights sophomore pitcher Skylar Lafferty held West Libery-Salem to four hits and one walk.
Despite the record Ready is no posteason pushover. The Silver Knights reached the state semifinals in 2013 and have made five trips overall. Their 13 wins are the most since going 15-16 in 2013 en route to state.
To get there again Ready will have to figure out Robbins. She held Badin to a single on Wednesday to improve to 18-0 with a 0.74 earned-run average.
A strong defense behind Robbins has helped post 13 shutouts this season. Only Shawnee (7-2) and Troy (11-3) have managed to outscore Northwestern.
“We fixed some things and it’s definitely starting to show,” Johnson said of some in-season tweaks. “They’re a great group of girls. We’re a family and I think that helps when things maybe aren’t going our way. They pick each other up and get us back on track. They believe in themselves.”