GLADSTONE - Steady is the head that wears the crown.
The Gladstone Braves (21-5-1) are heavy favorites to extend their Division 3 softball supremacy to a full decade today when they host their first district tournament.
Gladstone faces Negaunee at 3 p.m., after Manistique meets Houghton at 1 p.m. The championship game is at 5 p.m.
Negaunee has the best chance of the field to derail the Braves' title express. The Miners fell 1-0 in last year's district and 2-0 in nine innings the previous year.
"He has to be using that (history) as incentive," Gladstone manager Gerry Smith said of Negaunee skipper John Anderson's pre-game discussions.
"We can't change anything we do just because of them. We play what we know. It doesn't make any difference about last year. This team is their own team. They have to make their own trail."
Smith is not sure who will pitch for the Miners. Cheyene Cherubini, who had seven strikeouts in three hitless innings as Negaunee belted Pickford-Cedarville 15-0 in Tuesday's opener, recently came off the injured list. Rosalie Anderson also pitches well for Negaunee.
"It really doesn't make a difference," Smith said of preparing for two pitchers. "We still have to play the game and find a way to put the ball in play and run like we normally do. It sounds simple on paper."
Smith also has excellent options in the circle, with sophomore Christine Sharon and junior Alison Austin handling the majority of innings this season. He has split their innings in games and has started them on opposite sides of twinbills.
"It is a good complement of two pitchers, they have different styles, different speeds. They are different in every aspect," said Smith, indicating he has not decided how to use them Friday. Admitting before Wednesday's practice it is "up in the air," Smith said it is likely Sharon will get the start against Negaunee.
He said Sharon "brings the heat. When she throws, she throws hard. And she has a nice changeup. Alison brings the control and movement of the ball."
Whoever pitches, the Braves boast a stingy defense that makes it easier for the hurler to relax and focus on the batter. All eight defenders returned from last year's semifinalist, with Sharon and Austin the only newcomers.
"The defense is superb," said Smith. "There is not a weak link out there in any place."
He said the offense "has been up and down. In general, we're batting well, over .300 as a team." Senior Katie Becker is hitting .500 while Jordan Kowalski, Jordan Schwartz and Jammie Botruff have also been key contributors.
Manistique has come on strong in recent weeks, albeit against weaker competition, as defense has led the way.
Manager Dave McNeil said the Emeralds (18-17) have had an error or less in 10 of the past 12 games while winning nine of 10.
"That will keep us in the game for awhile against Gladstone," McNeil said of a potential title game test. "Gladstone is the only team we don't match up with. We don't match up all that well against Negaunee either, but Gladstone is the real deal. They have been for years, no two ways about it."
Asked if the Braves are unbeatable in the district, McNeil said "absolutely not, but you have to play a perfect game, you have to play about 10 feet above what you normally play."
Manistique rallied to beat Houghton 6-5 at the Superior Dome last month, but no one puts much weight on those early-season indoor results. Negaunee won the first-year Mid-Peninsula Conference title and owns 12-9 and 7-0 victories over the Emeralds, erasing a 9-1 deficit when the Emeralds committed seven errors.
McNeil shuffled the defense recently, moving Kalyssa Jenerou from center field to shortstop, "which has really anchored our middle," he said "of another big difference in our resurgence." Jessi Zellner shifted from left to center.
Catcher Brooke Bontekoe set a school record with 19 doubles this season and is hitting .529. Pitcher Haley MacGregor is 13-10 with a 5.49 ERA and has struck out 94 in 130 innings.
"We've been making really solid defensive plays behind our pitchers," said McNeil, recalling "a real sweet double play against Newberry."