By BRIAN LESTER
Pressure isn’t going to be a problem for the University of Findlay softball team this weekend in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament.
The Oilers are the eighth seed, which means little is expected of them. They open tourney play on Friday in a 10 a.m. game against top-seeded Ohio Dominican at the Marathon Diamonds in Findlay.
“Coming in, we are the underdogs. There is no pressure on us,” said senior shortstop Emily Reynolds, a former standout at Elmwood High School. “The pressure is on everyone else. Even though we have a tough road ahead of us, the league has been so up and down. Anyone could be playing on Sunday for the championship.”
UF has been feeling the heat of playoff pressure all season.
In a conference that was tight all year, the Oilers have only four fewer league wins than second-seeded Wayne State (17-5), UF has had little room for error.
The Oilers, who went 22-17 overall and 13-13 in the GLIAC, won three of their final five to punch their postseason ticket for the second straight year. They finished tied for eighth with Hillsdale, but held the tiebreaker over the Chargers after sweeping the season series.
“Our games in the conference have been tournament-like games,” Reynolds said. “If we don’t win some of the games we did, we don’t make it. Our tough season has prepared us for the tournament.”
UF head coach Ron Ammons also believes the league is more balanced than in the past.
“Every game has counted, and it’s a good thing we played well at the end to get in. It means a lot to be back in the tournament. The players just don’t want to be here. They want to win games. They have that winning mentality, and it really showed in the games late in the season.”
The Oilers and Panthers played twice during the season, but that was back on March 28th. UF lost 4-2 in both games.
ODU, the only team in the tourney without an overall winning record, is 25-25 overall and finished 21-5 in the conference. The Panthers have won their last three games and are hitting .308 as a team.
Taylor Thomas has fueled ODU’s offense, hitting .404 on the year with nine home runs. She has knocked in 34 runs while Kelsey Seeds is batting .295 with 11 doubles. Allie Hinton is batting .345 and has knocked in 33 runs.
Rachel Stanzel is the ace for the Panthers. She owns an 18-13 record and has struck out 107. Stanzel’s ERA is 2.36.
“They are balanced and they have solid pitching,” Ammons said. “But it’s a clean slate this weekend. Everyone knows that. We know what Dominican is going to bring and they know us. We have to just come out ready to play.”
The Oilers are hitting .260, improving steadily offensively as the season has worn on.
Courtney Dwyer, one of six seniors on the roster, is batting .266 with 11 doubles. Tori Allen is hitting .287 and has driven in 27 runs. Jackie Messersmith (Mohawk) is batting .279 and has racked up five triples while Reynolds owns a .267 batting average. She has knocked in 27 runs. Allen and Messersmith are also seniors.
Morgan Arnold, who also played at Elmwood, is hitting .144 and has driven in 11 runs.
Reynolds remembers the two losses to the Panthers, but said the Oilers have gained a great deal of confidence since that time, especially at the plate.
“There was a time where we had trouble stringing together hits, but now hitting has become contagious. When one player hits, we all start hitting well. I feel like we’ve come a long way as a team and we are clicking at the right time.”
From a pitching standpoint, Tawna Whited has led the way. The senior is 15-8 and has fashioned a 1.86 ERA. She has struck out 96 and is the all-time leader in wins in school history with 47.
“Splitting time with Brittany (Dauterman) really helped. We were a great one-two combination last year, and I learned a lot from her, especially about being a leader on the field. It’s helped me to pitch so much better this season.”
Whited said the bond she and the other seniors share has also played a role in the Oilers’ success.
“The seniors have meshed well together and we have fed off each other,” Whited said. “It’s been a big part of our success. I also think the tough competition we have faced has made us a better team. We have nothing to lose this weekend. We are ready to go out and play our best.”
A year ago, the Oilers were one of the final four teams in the tourney, their run ending with a gut-wrenching 5-4 loss to eventual champion Wayne State.
Ammons said his team will have to keep mistakes to a minimum to be successful. The Oilers will play either fourth-seeded Grand Valley or fifth-seeded Northwood on Friday afternoon depending on how the games earlier in the day turn out.
But no matter what happens, Reynolds is thankful she gets to play in this tourney one more time and is glad she had the chance to play for the Oilers.
“I’m so blessed to be back in the tournament game, and I have to play every game like it’s my last,” Reynolds said. “I’m grateful I played at Findlay, too. My best friends are on this team and we have great coaches who have been like dads to us. It’s been a great experience.”
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