JEROMESVILLE — The flowers bloom, the temperatures rise and the Hillsdale softball team qualifies for the state tournament.
So goes the spring in Ashland County.
The Falcons will head to Akron’s Firestone Stadium on Friday afternoon to begin defense of their Division IV state championship.
Hillsdale (20-6) plays Mechanicsburg (20-3) in the nightcap of the Division IV state semifinals. Peebles (24-2) and Antwerp (20-2) meet in the earlier game.
That the Falcons qualified for the Final Four comes as no surprise to even the most casual high school softball fan. Hillsdale is making its 16th appearance in the state’s showcase event, tied for second all-time with fellow small-school juggernaut Strasburg.
Only Keystone, which qualified for the 18th time this spring, has made more trips to state.
The Falcons won their seventh state title last year, joining Strasburg and Tallmadge in that exclusive club. Akron Springfield has nine state championships to its credit, while North Canton Hoover and Warren Champion each have eight (Champion is chasing its ninth this weekend in Akron).
Hillsdale’s Friday afternoon opponent, Mechanicsburg, has never qualified for the state tournament. Neither have either of the other two teams in the Division IV field.
Only a handful of programs have sustained success throughout the history of the state softball tournament like Hillsdale. The Falcons were Class A state runner-up in 1978, the first year of the state tournament, and won it all in 1979. Pitcher Susie Hardy twirled a no-hitter in an 18-0 semifinal win over Buckeye Trail that year.
Hillsdale was runner-up in 1986, Cathy Applegate’s second season in charge. Applegate was on the 1979 championship team and would win three Division III state crowns as a head coach (1994, 1996, 1999).
She handed the reins to Ray Dickerhoof, who won a state title in 2000. Next up was Tiffany Smith, who played on the 1999 and 2000 state championship teams and led the Falcons to the Division III crown in 2010.
Hannah Fulk, who starred at Hillsdale and later Bowling Green State University, took over for Ben Bolen in 2017 and piloted the program to its seventh title last spring.
Fulk is just the sixth head coach in program history. All six took Hillsdale to the Final Four at least once and five won state titles.
Hillsdale’s seventh state crown last spring was arguably its most impressive. Pitcher Sydney Long didn’t allow a run in seven playoff games.
The Falcons have been almost as overwhelming this spring. Hillsdale has outscored its five playoff opponents by a combined score of 35-5 and is coming off a 5-0 win over Monroeville in last week’s regional championship game.
Olivia Betson has taken over for Long in the pitcher’s circle and allowed just four hits while striking out six in the regional final.
Hillsdale has just four seniors on the roster: Emily Crossen, Sophie Goon, Molly Moffett and Anna Rowland. They graduated last Sunday, a day after capturing the 16th regional title in school history. It was the 95th victory in their four seasons.
They need just two more victories this weekend to cement their place in the proud program’s history.