But following last year's victory over Garfield in

By Tom Hardesty Record-Courier staff writer Published:

But following last year's victory over Garfield in the PCL title game and the subsequent loss to graduation of star pitcher Beth Bauer, many thought that rite of spring had passed.

Think again.

The Rovers _ this time without the favorite's tag for a change _ are back in the league championship contest for the third straight year, winning the National Division title with a 9-4 PCL record.

The team with all the pressure this season, Field, managed to successfully navigate the minefield that is the PCL softball schedule to go 11-2 in the league and win the American Division crown.

The two will meet in the league title game at 4:15 p.m. Thursday at Kent State's Allerton Softball Complex.

Rootstown coach Dave Mullenix said the league's switch from a North-South divisional alignment to a big school-small school split has been instrumental to his club's success this season.

"I think going to a small school-big school division setup was to our advantage," said Mullenix, whose team is 15-9 overall. "With a new nucleus I felt we could compete in the small-school (National) division, and I think it's panned out that way. Three of our (PCL) losses were to big-school teams and one was to a small-school team. Playing in the small-school division has definitely been a big key for us.

"It's kind of nice to be the underdog for a change. I don't know if many people expected us to be back in the championship game. We've quietly taken care of business ... we haven't had a lot of publicity. But we're still the champs and we're not going to give it up without a fight."

Field coach Ray Dickerhoof, whose team is 20-7 overall, agrees that the Rovers will enter Thursday's showdown minus the pressure that has weighed heavily on their shoulders in recent title games.

"They can be loose as anything, because we're the ones who have been favored since the beginning of the season," he said. "You have a team coming in with nothing to lose. They'll play loose and they're going to be up big-time."

The teams met once during the regular season, with Field winning 4-1 in Brimfield. In that game, the Falcons had plenty of motivation following a year of stewing over two heartbreaking losses to the Rovers in 1997.

Mullenix said his team learned a lesson that day.

"I don't think our girls realized how badly they wanted us in that first game," he said. "But I'm sure it sunk in. I've been telling the girls all season long, 'Hey, when you've been on top as long as we have, everybody is gunning for you.' But I don't think there's any revenge on our part."

Each team has several quality pitchers to turn to on Thursday.

Rootstown can go with senior Nicole Rosenberger (11-7 record, 1.80 earned-run average, 98 strikeouts) or freshman Lindsay Bauer (4-2, 1.83 ERA, 40 strikeouts). Field can call on senior Becky Shanafelt (5-6, 1.00 ERA, 69 strikeouts), junior Lisa Betts (11-1, 0.968 ERA, 91 strikeouts) and sophomore Tia Wilmoth (4-0, 0.990 ERA, 28 strikeouts). Rosenberger faced Betts in the teams' earlier matchup.

Rootstown's batting lineup likely will look like this (in order): sophomore third baseman Rachelle Garner (hitting over .400), senior catcher Leslie Wampler (.320s), senior shortstop Michelle Van Atta (around .260), senior designated hitter Liz Embick (.285), Rosenberger (.240s, also plays right field), senior second baseman Bethann Paradise (about .280), senior first baseman Molly Jordan (.330), Bauer (around .240, also plays right field), and senior left fielder Nicole Nader (.280s). Senior Casey Reedy is the starting centerfielder.

The Field batting lineup goes as follows (also in order): junior shortstop Ashley Ball (.308), senior catcher Kim Ball (.233), Betts (.348, also plays first base), junior centerfielder Beth Wright (.307), freshman designated hitter Rachel Hendrickson (.272), senior right fielder Jenny Trout (.202), sophomore left fielder Cammy Price (.253), Wilmoth (.261, also plays third base), and Shanafelt (.254, also plays first base and centerfield). Freshman Danielle Knapp starts at second base.

"What concerns me most is getting off to a rough start like the last game," said Mullenix of his team's 4-1 loss to Field earlier this season. "They got three runs early and held onto it. I don't know if we have the guns to come from too far behind. Hopefully, we can get a lead and nurture it."

Said Dickerhoof: "Winning the PCL would be a nice feather in our cap, a great way to end the season. We'd finish with 20-plus wins ... it would be a nice way for the seniors to leave a legacy for the younger girls."

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