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Seniors return Utica Redskins softball to the OHSAA district finals

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PICKERINGTON – The tears simply added to flushed cheeks already drenched in sweat and sticky from dives into second base and home plate.

Lexi Wiegand was the driving force behind the Utica softball team from her first game to her last. The Utica seniors were on a mission to move the schedule back to Saturdays, and it didn’t always look like it would happen so soon.

“We seniors grew up playing softball, and there’s a connection with that,” Wiegand said. “As the upperclassmen move in, I feel like we have formed a sisterhood this year, and that will not be replaced.”

Wiegand reached base all four times she hit from the leadoff spot, capping off a compelling comeback. However, this fairy tale did not have a happy ending in a battle of Cinderella stories.

A two-run home run for Cassandra Simmons capped West Jefferson’s low five-run run in the sixth inning and lifted the No. 10 Roughriders (12-11) to a 10-8 victory over No. 11 Utica (12-12) in a Division III district final at Pickerington Central before playing Coldwater in Findlay on Wednesday at 2 p.m. Utica was playing in its first district final since the program fell in back-to-back trips in 2018 and ’19.

“We play for the person next to us and our teammates,” Utica senior Hannah Shaver said. “The morale of our team is just crazy. We play for each other, and that has really helped us.”

West Jefferson led 5-1 entering the fifth inning with help from the bat and right arm of standout freshman Jenna Mannon. She hit a solo home run in the first inning and a two-run double in the third.

Utica struck out eight times against Mannon, who struck out 14 in an 8-6 semifinal win against Northmor, but also had six hits. The big hits came back to back with two outs in the fifth inning when sophomore Emily Meyers doubled a run before classmate Kaitlin Evans’ tying three-run home run.

“I’m super proud of every one of them,” Utica coach Staci Meyers said. “They never stopped. The fight was there. You can’t ask for more than that as a coach.”

Utica took an 8–5 lead in the top of the sixth inning with the help of two batters reaching base on missed third strikes and aggressive baserunning. West Jefferson had the final say, however, when a two-run home run for Zoey Brown and a sacrifice fly for Lexi Swaney drove in runs in the bottom half of the inning for Simmons’ eventual game-winner.

Utica also graduates first baseman Karleigh Lees, catcher Lauren Schmitt, second baseman Carlie Hill, who got the final two outs in the circle in relief of freshman Kiersten Hull, and utility player Emma Lucas.

“After struggling the last three years, us seniors really stepped up,” Wiegand said. “We really wanted that this year. We knew there was nothing to lose, so we just gave it our best shot. We have so much potential, and we finally brought that out in the last few games.”

Utica defeated Johnstown in Licking County League-Cardinal Division play and also posted notable wins against Lakewood and Heath before posting postseason victories against Centerburg, Grandview Heights and old nemesis Cardington.

Cardington closed out Utica’s season in its two most recent trips to the district finals. The cancellation of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic was devastating for a decorated senior class, but this season’s seniors set the table for the program to take the next step.

“It means so much to know that we’ve come this far and built such a program that we can compete with those high-level teams,” Shaver said.

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