BY JEREMY SCHNEIDER | MIRROR SPORTS — All the way back in February, Maumee softball coach Brian Jones knew the 2023 Panthers team could be something special.
His squad proved his initial feelings during tryouts particularly prophetic, advancing to the program’s first-ever Division II regional tournament before losing to eventual state champion Tallmadge in the regional championship.
“I knew going into the season this team was special and different from the last couple years just by the way they started working hard the first day of tryouts, and they never gave up,” Jones said.
“They were never satisfied and wanted to make a name for themselves, and that came from the senior leadership, down.”
Jones mentioned his four varsity seniors, Danielle Schriner, Ericka Kalaski, Haley Hughes and Autumn Miller, as setting the tone for the Panthers.
“I think the difference from past years is this year’s seniors,” Jones said. “They took charge, took ownership and brought the youngsters along to let them know that if we put our hearts into this, we can do something special.”
Along the way, the Panthers put together a 15-win season, including three wins in the ultra-competitive Northern Lakes League.
Maumee benefited from surprising seasons from freshmen Taylor Smith, Hannah Ruiz and Autumn Gugger. All three were named to the All-NLL team, while Smith made the all-district first team at catcher.
“We knew the freshmen were going to be pretty good when we saw them in tryouts,” Jones said. “They just grew faster than I imagined and became great leaders this season.”
Late in tournament games, though, the Panthers still relied upon their proven upperclassmen, especially as Schriner and junior Lilly Duling hit tie-breaking and game-winning home runs.
“Both Lilly and Danielle worked extremely hard on both sides of the ball,” Jones said. “They work together a lot offensively, they would work on their weaknesses, which I think made them better hitters down the stretch.
“They complement each other with Lilly hitting in the three spot and Danielle hitting in the four spot, making a great one-two punch there.”
Now that their time in the NLL is over as they transition to the Northern Buckeye Conference next year, the Panthers will have plenty of experience back from this team; seven players who appeared in key spots this year will return next year.
Jones hopes the success of last year can lead to more success in the future, but he also knows it won’t be easy – Maumee will not sneak up on anyone any longer.
“Hopefully the success that we had will drive more people to come out and play softball, work on their game to make themselves better and the program,” he said, “but not only for softball.
“Hopefully all other programs look at it and say Maumee can be competitive with the right attitude and effort.”