MASSILLON: Jenna Williams threw strikes. Courtney Roth fielded everything. And Emily Kusmits hit homers.
That recipe lifted Manchester to a 4-1 win Wednesday over Leavittsburg LaBrae in a Division III regional softball semifinal at Massillon High School.
Overlooked and underestimated, the Panthers (19-8) are one win away from their first state semifinal appearance since winning the program’s third state championship in 2001.
Manchester will meet either Independence or South Range for the region title at noon Saturday in Massillon.
“A lot of people didn’t give us much of a chance or any respect at the district level,” Manchester coach Jim Morehart said. “We have a team that’s won 19 games and 11 of our nonleague games were against Division I [opponents]. And I wasn’t able to get one kid even second-team all-district. So, it’s kind of rewarding for these kids.”
The Panthers won their district tournament as the No. 5 seed.
Kusmits carried Manchester offensively, batting 3-for-3 with two homers and three RBI. She lined a single to left in the top of the first inning and blasted a solo homer to right in the third, putting the Panthers on top 2-0.
Her next at-bat was symbolic of the team’s season. With Manchester leading 2-1 in the fifth inning, and a runner on second base and two outs, LaBrae elected to pitch to Kusmits.
It was a bad idea.
She unloaded another home run to right, her sixth of the season. Almost an exact replay of the first home run, it deflated LaBrae and ran the score to 4-1.
“The first [home run] was special for me because it broke the school record,” said Kusmits, a sophomore third baseman.
She hit consecutive grand slams two weeks ago against Tuscarawas Valley.
“I was real surprised [when they pitched to her],” Morehart said. “There’s nobody around that works any harder on her hitting.”
After committing an error in the first inning, Roth, a senior shortstop, registered a sparkling defensive game the rest of the way. She turned seven straight ground balls into outs, including three in the bottom of the sixth when the Vikings were trying to generate a spark.
In the sixth, LaBrae catcher Kasey Rininger hit a sharp grounder into the hole at short, but Roth made a diving stop and threw from the ground to first baseman Kate Mash, who tagged Rininger out.
“She’s done it there for four years,” Morehart said. “If she makes a mistake, she’s like, ‘Bring it to me again.’ She’s not afraid to get dirty.”
The third part of the winning equation was Williams. With his senior pitcher Brooke Horning limited to batting because of tightness in her shoulder, Morehart again handed the ball to Williams, a sophomore.
“I knew I had to step it up,” said Williams (8-4), after yielding four singles, one base on balls, and one hit batter along with two strikeouts.
“This wasn’t my best game, but I had to keep pushing through it. My team had my back in the field.”
Manchester broke on top 1-0 when senior Haylee Zwick led off the third and watched four balls. She eventually scored on a wild pitch. Kusmits followed with her first homer.
LaBrae left fielder Haley Davies drew a walk and scored on Lauren Rutherford’s sacrifice bunt in the third inning.
Emily Dugan took the loss, while right fielder Amber Davidson had two hits for the Vikings (20-6).
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