After Ohio reached the Mid-American Conference tournament championship series in 2017, lost to Kent State twice, and was denied a bid to the NCAA Tournament, the goal this year was not to let that happen again.
Ohio (38-15) reached the championship series and won to guarantee a spot in the NCAA Tournament. The first goal of the season was accomplished, but early on, the team was struggling to put everything together.
Entering their first game against James Madison earlier in the season, Ohio was three games under .500, something was needed as MAC play approached. That happened March 17 against James Madison(42-12). It took nine innings, three errors by the Dukes and a five run comeback against the pitcher who had thrown a complete game shutout against the Bobcats the day before.
“Ever since that day we just have been firing on all cylinders and that was the first day we kind of felt it, I think as a team," captain Taylor Saxton said.
That win began a 32-game stretch where Ohio only lost three times on its way to an MAC Championship and NCAA Regional appearance.
The main change in the Ohio lineup was Mikayla Cooper moving to the leadoff spot and Alex Day dropping down to second in the order. Those two would end up being the best hitters for Ohio throughout the season combining for 23 home runs and 87 RBIs.
“We plugged a couple of personnel into different places, readjusted a little bit of the lineup and that win really set us off,” head coach Jodi Hermanek said.
After cruising through the MAC regular season and tournament, Ohio is in the NCAA Tournament. It will face the same team that helped turn its season around, James Madison, as it looks to become the furthest advancing Bobcat team in program history.
Danielle Stiene led the Bobcats all season in the circle with a 1.51 ER and 257 strikeouts. She has the most shutouts in a single season in program history with 13 and is tied for second in the nation in that category.
When Stiene faced the Dukes in that March 17, 9-7 win, she threw 4 2/3 shutout innings in relief.
Cooper and Day have led the Bobcat hitters throughout the season, but not in every game. In the MAC Championship game, Michaela Dorsey led the way and, earlier in the tournament, Mackenzie Brunswick did.
James Madison relies on three hitters: Kate Gordon, Morgan Tolle and Odicci Alexander. They have combined for 47 home runs, 159 of the teams 320 RBIs and 41 doubles.
Those three each had two at-bats against Stiene. Gordon had the lone hit and Tolle struck out twice.
James Madison is in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight year after receiving an at-large bid, despite losing in the in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game. The Dukes are ranked No. 23 in the USA Today/National Fastpitch Association Coaches poll and No. 25 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 Poll.
Alexander is also the ace of the pitching staff with a 2.15 ERA and 24 wins. She has struck out just under one batter per inning and holds opponents to a .206 batting average against her.
Her outing against Ohio March 17 was one of her worst of the season. She gave up 6 runs, including home runs to Dorsey and Katie Yun.
Ohio and James Madison were in the same regional in 2014 in Lexington, Kentucky, but did not play each other. The Bobcats dropped both games, moving to 0-4 all-time.
"I think getting the first win will be a sigh of relief and then it's going to be we got that win and that's what we've been working for,” Stiene said. “We just don't want one win, we want to be in that regional championship that's our goal and to win a regional would be insanely amazing.”
The game will be broadcast on ESPN3 at 3:40 p.m. with the winner moving on to face the winner of Tennessee vs. Monmouth.