BELLVILLE — Heading into the Division II State Semifinals, Clear Fork coach Jeff Gottfried would be the first to tell you he doesn’t know much about Tallmadge.
Other than knowing they are a perennial state power and they have a strong pitcher, there are many questions left unanswered. Gottfried is depending on a scouting report to fill in the blanks.
The Colts (28-4) will face the Blue Devils (27-4) in the Division II State Semifinals at 3 p.m. on Friday at Akron’s Firestone Stadium, a place Tallmadge knows all too well. The Blue Devils are making their 13th state appearance and are looking for their eighth state title. They also won two regional games last week at Firestone Stadium, less than 10 miles from home.
“Tradition,” said Gottfried. “They’ve got the name, but you know what. We played a Lima Bath name, we played a Keystone name. These kids aren’t fazed by a name. They don’t care about tradition or the past. I didn’t mention (Tallmadge’s success) to them, and they don’t need to know. It is like I tell them all the time, ‘That tradition doesn’t score you any runs. It doesn’t get you any outs. It just puts an expectation on you.’ Truthfully, the pressure is on them because they are expected to be there. They’re expected to be in the finals. We are little old Clear Fork; we’re nobodies. We’re just going to go out there, play our game and see what happens.”
Tallmadge senior Jen Cottrell is at the heart of what the Blue Devils do. She’s posted a 21-3 record this season, striking out 86 batters in 156 2/3 innings. Even more amazing, Cottrell has allowed just six walks in that span. She also sports a 1.47 ERA.
Cottrell, a three-year varsity player for Tallmadge, can throw several different pitches, including her signature change-up, and can be intimidating on the mound. Her appearance — blonde hair and red eyes — have struck fear in many batters this season. The red eyes are a result of contact lenses. In addition to her change-up, Cottrell throws a fastball, a dropball and a riseball. Her fastball is said to come across the plate in the mid-50s.
“She is solid,” Gottfried said of Cottrell. “I don’t know a whole lot about her. We went and scouted her a little bit, and from what we’ve seen, she isn’t any better than Kasey Kelly from Wooster or Holly Tomaszewski from Lexington or Lima Bath pitcher Shelby Snyder we saw or Kara Dill from Keystone. How much tougher can you get? I don’t think you can. Maybe it is a different style, but as far as good, we’ve seen everything. It is just a matter of seeing the ball and having good focus. There will be lots of distractions so as long as we can stay focused, we will be fine.”
Clear Fork counters with senior Rachel Wilson on the mound. Wilson (15-1) won’t overpower the Blue Devils, but she will keep them off balance. Wilson has struck out 122 batters this year in 107 innings.
At the plate, Tallmadge is like most teams. The Blue Devils sports a healthy batting average, thanks in part to senior Lauren Grimes, a four-year varsity player. She leads the offense with a .533 average, which includes 49 hits and four home runs. She has driven in 26 runs this year. Tallmadge is batting .363 as a team and has scored 240 runs in 31 games.
The Blue Devils offense features eight hitters with batting averages better than .300, including that of Cottrell (.333 batting average, two home runs, eight doubles and 20 RBI).
“They have a couple of kids that can run pretty well; they’ve got a good mix,” Gottfried said. “I’ve been told they are going to put the ball in play and make you make plays on defense. But, we’ve got a pitcher that doesn’t expect to strike people out, so our defense is used to the ball being hit at them. That’s going to be our focus - to keep them off balance and keep the ball off the biggest part of their bats so they don’t hit it a long way. We’ll make plays on defense.
“Offensively, are they stronger or weaker than anybody else, I don’t know, but we’ve got our approach that we use with our pitcher and our catcher. If it works, great; if it doesn’t, we’ll come home.”
The Colt offense is batting .362 overall, led by Wilson’s .520 average. She has 38 stolen bases this season. Taylor Thomas is the Clear Fork power threat, batting .389 with six home runs and 38 RBI; and catcher Morgan Ruhl has done it all, hitting 3.21 with five doubles, three triples and a home run. As a team, the Colts have struck out just 164 times in 847 at-bats.
Gottfried believes his team can handle the in-game situations. It is the atmosphere and size of Firestone Stadium that could be a little daunting. He’s hoping what they have planned helps in the long run.
“We’ve so many different things; we’ve seen so many different pitchers,” Gottfried said. “We are very good at making adjustments not only before the game, but also during the game. We’ve got the kind of team that if we need to do small ball, we will. If we need to hit a ball into the gap, we will. We’ve got different kids that can do both facets of the game. We’ve got a good mix. I think we are a tough team to defend as well.”
“We are going up early to get acclimated to the surroundings. A lot of our kids have played up there, but they haven’t played with the surroundings that are going to be going on. We want to get acclimated to that as best we can so we are prepared. It will be crazy, but it will be a lot of fun. We’re going to enjoy it that’s for sure.
Gottfried also expects a large backing to be there come game time.
“This is a home game for them — they are only 10 minutes down the road — but I can just about guarantee we will have as many or more people from the valley up there,” Gottfried said. “Even from the surrounding area; they will be there to watch. From that standpoint, it will be a good ball game. It will be a great atmosphere.”
Nothing the Colts do will surprise Gottfried come game time. He has seen a transformation in his team, and knows they have the confidence to carry them though.
“Our kids want this pretty badly, but they want it for each other more than anything else,” Gottfried said. “You can’t tell a difference between the freshmen and the seniors. They really support each other and have had a wonderful time this year playing with each other. It is going to be sad to see it end. We are going to get done with that last game whenever it is, win or lose, and they are going to say, ‘Can we play some more?’ that’s their mentality. They are not ready for it to end.”
The winner of Friday’s semifinal will play the winner of the other semifinal — Hamilton Ross and Byesville Meadowbrook — for the Division II title on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Firestone Stadium.
Note: Not wanting to look past Tallmadge, Gottfried set up a little different practice session for the Colts on Wednesday in preparation for the state final, should his team get there.
“With the potential state final being at 7 p.m., it could get a little dark up there so we are going to Bellville and turn the lights on,” said Gottfried of the plans. “We’re having an intrasquad scrimmage and I called (Lexington pitcher) Holly Tomaszewski to come over and pitch to us.
“That’s what is cool. Yeah, we were competitors throughout the season, but when one team gets to the end, your local schools really support each other. (Holly) is a class kid, and I told her that. We’ve played each other 12 times in four years, and I know she is a good kid. I called her and she said, ‘Alright coach, I’ll be there. Just tell me when.’”