GLADSTONE - For the Gladstone Braves softball team, the road to a regional title begins tomorrow at 10 a.m. in Traverse City against the Boyne City Ramblers.
This is not new territory for the Braves, who have been to the final four the past five years and earned a state title in 2009. Gladstone has built a foundation of success, and the Ramblers will certainly have their hands full Saturday.
"We don't have a weak link in our chain," said Braves coach Gerry Smith. "We have all the facets in hand, and we hit the ball up and down. The nine hitters hit it consistently, and the top six can hit home runs at any given time. With all the combinations filled up like that, I think we have a real good shot at (a state title)."
Justin Marietti | Daily Press
Gladstone pitcher Alison Austin works against the Negaunee Miners in their Division 3 district title game on June 1.
Boyne City (13-14) edged the Harbor Springs Rams to advance to the regional stage, and Ramblers coach Sandy Clausen knows that beating Gladstone will be no easy feat. But she is confident that if her team plays to their potential, it will be a battle for the right to advance.
"I know they have a quality program," she said, "but I feel like we can play with anybody if we show up to play. If we're going to beat Gladstone, we're going to have to play some good ball."
Ramblers pitcher Emma Shumaker will be taking the mound in Saturday's matchup. She threw all 14 innings in district play, putting up 11 strikeouts.
"She's one of those kids that has played travel ball a lot and has a lot of experience," Clausen said. "She's consistent; she doesn't throw heaters, but throws in and around the plate. She also doesn't give up a lot of walks."
Clausen added that the reason why her team is able to succeed is because they have played the game as a group, and many of them are athletes to their core.
"They are young, but they have played a lot together," she said. "Honestly, a lot of them play sports. They play softball because they love softball, and I think that matters. You put your heart more into it."
Smith knows a thing or two about getting a group of kids to work together, and has had a great deal of success doing so. However, he says sometimes it comes from motivation, and other times it's just a coin toss that falls their way.
"A lot of times the kids will find a way to win," he said. "A lot of it is luck, there's no doubt about it. But a lot of it is also the focus coming out at the right time. Someone comes up with a big hit and everyone follows suit. They start to rally behind it.
"There's just some chemistry in that lone hit, and then everyone wants to follow it."
Smith added that having a team that is 26-1 like his Braves can make things tough sometimes, because kids can get so used to winning that they take it for granted. However, his approach doesn't change based on wins or losses.
"We prepare for every game the same way, and we try to keep the kids totally focused," he said. "We try to keep the focus the same regardless of the game situation, or who we are playing."
Gladstone had a standoff with the Negaunee Miners in the district title game, going through nearly four innings without a score. However, they chipped away and found a way to get their offense going, and Smith was pleased with the end result.
"I think they did well," he said. "They get timely. We got runners in scoring position and got timely hitting and that's what you need to win ball games. You can have umpteen hits and never score but the key ones, that's what it's all about."