Olivia Schulz

Madison's Olivia Shulz takes a cut during the Rams' 7-3 loss to Amherst Steele during the final day of the 28th Wendy's Spring Classic on Saturday at Brookside West in Ashland.

ASHLAND — The organizers of the Wendy’s Spring Classic mixed in a curveball.

The 24-team softball extravaganza gets cranked up Thursday afternoon with a somewhat different look than in previous years.

Instead of the round-robin format utilized last year, the 29th edition of the Wendy’s will feature three eight-team brackets. Each team will still be guaranteed three games — weather permitting — with bracket champs crowned Saturday afternoon.

Organizers have at times in the past divided the field into four-team pools. Each team would play the other three teams in the pool with a pool champ determined by record.

This year’s Classic has more of a tournament feel.

“Over the years that I’ve run the thing we’ve gone to the eight-team brackets as much as we can,” longtime tournament organizer John Davis said. “Last year we went with the four-team pools because we had fewer teams because of COVID.

“I like the idea that the kids are playing for something when it comes to that third game, be it first place, third place, fifth place of seventh place. They’re still playing for something.”

For the second year in a row, the field will be comprised exclusively of Ohio teams. Last year marked the first time since the Classic’s first year in 1994 that the field featured teams only from the Buckeye State. With this year’s event falling on Easter weekend, drawing in teams from out of state was going to be a tall order.

“We could not get any out-of-state teams. We have a couple schools from New Jersey that are big fans of the Wendy’s but they are parochial schools and Easter weekend is not real conducive for travel,” Davis said. “We were very fortunate that we could get St. Joseph Academy out of Cleveland.

"They said they would play as long as they don’t have to play on Good Friday.”

Despite the absence of some traditional non-Ohio powers, there will be no shortage of high-profile programs in action this week at Brookside’s main diamond and at Brookside West.

The event opens with a marquee matchup between Madison and Triway at 5 p.m. Thursday at Brookside’s main diamond. The Rams reached the Elite Eight in Division II last spring, falling to eventual state champ Keystone in the regional finals. Keystone beat Triway in the state championship game.

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“It’s definitely about going over there and playing good competition and getting better,” Madison coach Tim Niswander said. “We’ve got Triway, the defending state runner-up with every starter returning, right out of the gate.”

Keystone will be making its 19th appearance in the Wendy’s. Defending Division I state champ Massillon Perry is the field for the 13th time, while reigning Division IV state champ Bradford is making its first appearance in the Classic.

“A lot of teams come to the Wendy’s because they want to see good competition before they get to the postseason tournament,” Davis said.

Count Niswander among them.

“We want to see really good pitching and see our pitching against good hitters. We just want to test ourselves,” Niswander said. “This weekend really prepares us for down the line in the tournament if we’re lucky enough to get that far.

"We want to see the best pitchers we can see. The further you get into the tournament, the better the pitching becomes. If you’ve never seen it before, you’ve got no chance.”

North central Ohio will again be well represented at the Wendy’s. In addition to Madison, Ontario, Ashland, Hillsdale and Loudonville will be in action.

Loudonville, which reached the Division IV district semifinals last year, opens against Division I Elyria at 5 p.m. Thursday at Brookside West’s Field No. 1.

Ontario, which reached the district semifinals before falling to Madison last year, plays St. Joseph Academy, a Division I regional semifinalist last spring, at 7 p.m. Thursday at Brookside West’s Field No. 1.

Ashland and Hillsdale will duke it out at 6 p.m. Friday on Brookside Park’s main diamond.

“There are a lot of tournaments out there these days, but we still have the draw that really good teams from all across Ohio still want to come to Ashland to play,” Davis said. “The competition and the talent that we continue to get at the Wendy’s Spring Classic is just incredible.”

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I have covered high school sports in Richland County since 2000. Email him at curt@richlandsource.com or follow him on Twitter: Follow @curtjconrad on twitter.

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