Determined Freeport softball team strives for 1st WPIAL title

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Saturday, May 12, 2018 | 11:42 PM


A frequent drill during Freeport's softball practice focuses on the importance of 21 outs — always focusing on the next one, never looking back at the last one.

Perhaps no team in the WPIAL better understands the value of those 21 outs, the number usually needed to secure a victory, than the Yellowjackets, the queens of the comeback this season. No matter its deficit, Freeport (12-0) found a way to rally. No opponent secured those 21 outs against the Yellowjackets.

“It's kind of weird because I've never seen anything like it,” senior Ashleigh Schmidt said. “I've never been a part of a team where so many times we've been battling and battling and came out on top.”

With the WPIAL playoffs beginning this week, Freeport stands within three more victories of coming out on top in a larger sense — with its first WPIAL title. Section 1-4A rivals Burrell (2000, '11), Deer Lakes ('12, '15) and Valley ('07, '10) have won the WPIAL's top prize, and the Yellowjackets hope to join them.

But Freeport isn't looking that far ahead, nor is it basking in its undefeated regular season or its first section title since 2000.

Next out, not the last one. Next game, not the one after.

“As much as it's a great thing and a positive thing, we're not going to let that go to our heads or even be a factor in this,” senior Claire Crytzer said. “We're just going to go out and play softball.”

Freeport can point to plenty of success over the past 20 years. The Yellowjackets are making their ninth consecutive postseason appearance and 13th overall since 2000. But the quarterfinals represents their high-water mark in that span: Seven times they fell in that round.

After back-to-back quarterfinal exits in 2016 and '17 to the same team — South Park — on the same field at Hampton Community Park, Freeport came into the 2018 season determined for a different ending.

The team's work began in the preseason with strenuous conditioning — what Crytzer matter-of-factly called “a lot of running” — and explosive drills.

Some “out-of-the-box” drills like tug-of-war helped add some levity when the Yellowjackets were cooped up inside their gym during the rainy early days of spring.

“We had a couple weeks there where we were really down,” Freeport coach Sam Ross said. “You had to really work to keep the girls focused and tell them, ‘Some day we're going to play, so keep on working.' And they did: They had some great Friday night practices, Saturday morning practices. They come to practice all the time. But to watch this group here, we have five seniors. Most are four-year letterwinners, and they've gotten better every year.”

Especially this year. Crytzer suspected the Yellowjackets had something special in them during the preseason workouts, “but you never know until you actually get out onto the dirt.”

The dirt work has been pretty good as Freeport is fielding maybe its most well-rounded team in years.

The Yellowjackets boast a team batting average of .379 and averaged more than 10 runs during the regular season. Schmidt (9-0, 1.25 ERA) and sophomore Tori Radvan (2-0, 3.61) lead the pitching staff, and the defense committed just 13 errors in 12 games, a major improvement from last season.

“This year, better than any of the other years, we have one through nine (who) all can hit the ball, and we all get on base somehow,” said junior center fielder Ally DeJidas, batting a team-high .622 with five homers and 22 RBIs. “That's definitely key this year. We all can hit. (Pitching, defense and hitting) are definitely there this year, and we've just got to perform.”

Freeport will get its chance to do so Thursday against the winner of a first-round game between Waynesburg and Freedom.

Nemesis South Park looms on the opposite side of the bracket — the defending PIAA champion Eagles are the top seed, so the teams wouldn't meet until the WPIAL championship game.

But while the Yellowjackets admitted to knowing that, they have other business first.

Such as the next 21 outs.

“I think it's just (about) keeping our heads where they are and not getting a big head,” Schmidt said. “Because that can always hurt you. (It's about) definitely keeping the same mentality we had through the season. Never let down, and keep fighting back.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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