There’s been plenty for Springfield High School players to cheer about this championship season. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Softball championship season a long time coming for Wildcats

Once the bottom feeder of Greater Western Ohio Conference softball, Springfield High School has a championship reason to celebrate.

Just four years removed from a one-win season, Springfield clinched a rare share of the GWOC National East title with of sweep of Wayne early last week. And it could get better for the Wildcats.

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Springfield has two remaining shots at winning an out-right championship, but must beat either Miamisburg on Monday or Springboro on Tuesday, both of which were postponed GWOC crossover games that count in the National Conference divisional races.

Springfield senior catcher Kirsten McCleary is headed to WSU on an academic scholarship to study biology. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

How unlikely is all that? The Wildcats had a combined three GWOC wins over the previous three seasons.

“From my freshman year to now it feels amazing,” said Springfield standout senior catcher Kirsten McCleary. “It’s great to be on a winning team for once. We’re a softball family and I’m very proud to be on this team.”

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It wasn’t always that way for McCleary and her teammates. In 2016 Springfield softball sank to 1-26. Games rarely lasted more than five innings. Subs earned starts against the Wildcats. The muffled mocking was relentless.

“Two things happened,” said Springfield coach Brett Sadler, who inherited the Wildcats after that low point. “I told them what people were saying. The comments were horrific and their jaws dropped. … I said, I can tell you how to fix it, but you’ve got to be all in. It’s going to take a lot. I want you to walk around town in a Springfield softball T-shirt and be proud to wear it, not embarrassed.”

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The good times hit a new level on Tuesday when junior Kenna Burkhardt hurled her second complete-game defeat of host Wayne in consecutive days, winning 10-3. That improved Springfield to 6-4 in the GWOC National East and 11-9 overall. It also meant Springfield had a one-game lead over Centerville (6-6) and two games over Fairmont (4-6) with two divisional crossover games remaining.

Springfield junior Kenna Burkhardt plays first base when not pitching. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

That clinched Springfield’s first conference softball title since North and South high schools merged in 2008. It took some scrapbook digging to reveal South had won the last conference crown under then-coach Greg Newland, in 2002.

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Should Springfield lose at Miamisburg on Monday, there’s always Tuesday at Springboro, although that could be an abbreviated challenge. The game was postponed last Wednesday with the teams tied at 2-all. It will resume with a Miamisburg runner on first base and one out in the bottom of the ninth inning.

A Springfield win in either of those games clinches an outright divisional title. Springfield, a No. 7 seed, drew a first-round bye in the Division I sectional and will play the Springboro/Wayne winner on Wednesday.

Burkhardt (4-6, 5.57 ERA, 56 strikeouts) is the Wildcats’ ace. Juniors Taryn Freer (4-3) and Bailey Romine (3-0) often split games. Freer has ranked among the GWOC leaders in batting average (.638), RBIs (38) and home runs (6) all season.

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But according to Sadler, it’s McCleary the Wildcats rally around, along with the mottos “Hitting Cures a Lot of Things” and “Defend the Hill.”

“Once we started winning all these games it meant so much to me because softball has always been my life,” said McCleary, who accepted an academic scholarship to study biology at Wright State University and will play on the 23U select traveling team Ohio Stingerz this summer.

“When (Sadler) said we have to do what we want to do and what do you want me to do, I knew we had the right coach.”

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Sadler previously coached North softball from 2000-05 and was an assistant at Wittenberg. His sister Kristi (Cornish) Barker previously was Shawnee’s softball coach.

“It’s such a surreal moment,” he said. “They made a commitment three years ago and to fix that so fast, it’s been wonderful. You have to pinch yourself at times because it’s been 17 years. We’re super proud.”

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• Middletown Madison (13-6) went 12-0 to win an outright Southwestern Buckeye League Buckeye Division title. Milton-Union, which won the 2018 divisional championship, tied Carlisle for second (9-3).

Monroe (14-3, 10-1) has clinched its third straight outright SWBL Southwestern title with one game remaining.

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• Fenwick (17-6, 10-2) ran away with its second straight outright Greater Catholic League Co-Ed North title. That extends a grand turnaround by the Falcons, who won just three league games in 2017 and placed last.

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• The postseason began on Saturday and will follow the standard sectional, district, regional and state final four tourney trail.

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