When the 2020 spring sports season was canceled, the news hit particularly hard for the North Ridgeville varsity softball program.

Those who’d played for the 2019 team that won 17 games and advanced to a Division I district semifinal knew they had a good thing going, and that 2020 was going to be a big momentum year with the majority of the roster returning.

“We thought we were sitting pretty good last year,” Mease said. “We lost one senior last year, so pretty much the whole team is back. We were ready and amped up to go for it (last year), but obviously the pandemic stopped us. But we haven’t stopped training. You can see it, the girls are hungry. The energy’s there and they’re rip-roaring to go.”

Losing a full season that contained so much promise was difficult, but it also served as fuel. The 2021 version of the Rangers, deep, talented and hungry, has been making up for lost time.

They won their first nine games, jumping to the front of the line in the highly-competitive Southwestern Conference, before losing a 2-1 heartbreaker on a fielding miscue at Amherst on April 19. Three days later, they moved to 10-1 (8-1 SWC) with a 4-0, one-hit shutout of Midview.

The hot start to this season is the best his Rangers have embarked on during Mease’s eight seasons at the helm.

“We took some lumps my first couple of years, so we’ve been building (the program up),” Mease said. “But we went 17-6 in 2019 and three of those losses were to Amherst. We lost a couple of one-run games that year and then lost at district. We just have to keep building off of that...We talk about it every single day, but the goal is (to win) the SWC, then beyond that take it a game at a time and keep chipping away.”

The team has certainly gained attention recently. When the first Ohio Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association (OFSCA) poll was released last week, the Rangers were ranked No. 7 in Division I, the first time they’d garnered a state ranking since Mease took over the program in 2014.

After the loss to Amherst, they sit in a tie for first place in the SWC with the four-time defending champion Comets, who have served as the measuring stick for the rest of the league. Prior to that loss, the Rangers had been averaging nearly seven runs per game.

“Losing last year was tough, but we’ve come out stronger this year,” said Rangers sophomore Autumn Behlke, who struck out 12 whlie allowing a single hit in the win over Midview on April 22. “I don’t think we have a ceiling. If we keep working hard and have each other’s back, we can make it really far.”

As Mease admitted after the win over the Middies, there is no one area that has carried his team so far this season. Rather, the Rangers are strong in every phase of the game. Behlke (1.96 ERA) has given up 10 earned runs over 35 innings pitched and struck out 58, while junior Katie Barnhart (2.24 ERA) has been equally effective in the circle, surrendering 11 earned runs and striking out 54 over 34 innings. Backing up the team’s two primary pitchers is a sound defense.

When it’s time to bat, the Rangers have shown depth up and down the lineup. Mease’s daughter, senior second baseman Rachel Mease, has been the tip of the sword in the leadoff role for the past three seasons, and currently leads the team in hits (20), extra-base hits (10) and RBI (12). Her RBI triple with two outs in the top of the seventh inning against Midview provided the team with an important insurance run in a game that was tightly contested all afternoon.

“We definitely started slow (against Midview), but as the game progressed we got settled and got runs when we needed to and secured the win,” Rachel Mease said.

There are eight players on the team currently hitting better than .300, led by Behlke at .500. Behlke and Jenna Jaffee have 10 and 11 RBI, respectively. Barnhart, Daylan Baker and Emily Line are among five players to surpass 10 hits.

With the season just past its halfway point, the SWC is still up for grabs with Amherst riding a 13-game winning streak and third-place Avon lurking close behind. But this year’s group of Rangers have been working hard toward being the class of the conference, and that work is paying off after a year's delay.

This team believes it can be as good as any in the program’s history.

“We can go very far if we believe in ourselves,” Rachel Mease said. “Right now, we’ve got a good taste of it, being 10-1, and just knowing that we have the confidence to go far and the talent to go far. It’s nice knowing that we’ve built such a strong foundation, and now we can continue to see how far we can go...We’ve got this fire under us and we’re ready to go.”

The Rangers will end this week with a trio of non-conference games. On Friday, they’ll play twice at Firestone Stadium in Akron against Poland Seminary (4:30 p.m.) and Archbishop Hoban (6:30 p.m.). At the same venue on Saturday, they’ll take on Mt. Orab Western Brown at 4 p.m. Results of league matchups against North Olmsted on Monday and Avon on Tuesday weren’t available at press time.

Contact this reporter at sports@westlifenews.com or 440-871-5797.

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