TRAVERSE CITY - Today's MHSAA Division 3 softball state quarterfinal has all the makings of a state title game, as perennial contenders Gladstone and Unionville-Sebewaing Area (USA) square off at noon.
These two teams win regional titles as frequently as the summer solstice comes each year.
USA (33-3) is making its 10th straight appearance in the state quarterfinal. Gladstone (28-1) has been to this game 11 straight years. Something will give today, and if the game on paper is any indication, it will be quite a show as the Braves and Patriots clash.
Gladstone’s Lexi Hongisto and Christine Sharon pose with the Division 3 regional championship trophy after defeating Tawas in Traverse City Saturday.
"It should be a real good ballgame," said Gladstone manager Gerry Smith.
USA scorched through its district and regional without allowing a single run. In the district tournament the Patriots pounded Pigeon-Bay Port 15-0 and Bad Axe 11-0 in five innings apiece, allowing just two hits throughout the two games.
In the regional, USA shut out Ithaca 13-0 and St. Charles 13-0 in five innings apiece. Against Ithaca, Ashlyn VanHoost's grand slam in the fifth, gave the Patriots a 13-0 lead and ended the game by the mercy rule. Sophomore pitcher Erica Treiber pitched all 10 innings in the regional for USA and is no stranger to this level of competition. As a freshman she started the state semifinal game for the Patriots. USA fell to eventual state champion, Clinton in 2012. That same Clinton team beat Gladstone 4-0 in the state title game last year, to secure its second consecutive championship.
But there will be a different champion this season in Division 3. Clinton fell 7-3 in the regional semifinal to Dundee and Gladstone's state semifinal opponent from a year ago, Springport, fell 7-3 in its regional semifinal against Grandville Calvin Christian.
The Braves have faced giant-killers before and come out on top. It's a safe bet they won't be rattled by the powerhouse Patriots. Smith said at this point in the tournament, it's more about mental composure than talent.
"Mental composure overcomes talent because the team with the least mistakes usually wins, and that is mental. It's usually the mental part of the game that creates mistakes," he said. "You already have the mechanics down. You just have to play your game and you'll do alright."
The Braves are aiming for their sixth straight appearance in the final four. The team won state titles in 2004 and 2009 and were state runners-up in 2012. Smith said there is no added pressure on the team to win it all and that the mood of the team is generally loose heading into the stretch run of the season.
"We don't try to push it for the kids. If you play your own game, you can beat anyone on any given day. You wait until they make mistakes and don't make any yourself and you'll do alright," he said. "Hopefully the kids are calm, and they seem to be in good spirits this morning and that's the biggest thing right there."
The team traveled to Traverse City on Monday morning and had a practice scheduled at Traverse City West High School at 4 p.m.
Smith said he planned on starting Alison Austin on the mound today. In the regional final against Tawas, Austin limited the opposition to four hits and three walks while striking out three.
Smith acknowledged he didn't have an in-depth scouting report on USA, but did point out that they played a common opponent.
"They played Tawas in a doubleheader earlier this year and won 7-0, 7-1. By that game, we should match up pretty good," he said.
Smith added that it helps to have an experienced team when you get to this point. The seniors on this Braves squad have been to the final four each year they have played on the team.
"A lot of them know the expectations, and I'll bring some of the younger ones along too so they can experience the atmosphere and see what it takes to win state titles," he said.
Smith also wanted to wish Escanaba well in the Division 2 quarterfinal. The last time both area teams made it to the final four in the same season was 2003.
"Best of luck to Escanaba. They did a good job in their regional," he said, adding that neither the Braves or the Eskymos will have an easy time of it in the quarterfinal. Escanaba plays perenial powerhouse Saginaw Swan Valley.
"We played Saginaw and they were one of the better teams we played all season," he said. "They're rolling pretty good right now, but every game is unique in itself. You just have to play it and at this level any team can come out."