ROSS TWP. — Paul Fernandez was more than ready for a victory meal after watching his Ross High School softball team claim the Division II state championship.
It turned out to be the best Whopper he’s ever had.
“I can remember riding back to the hotel on the bus and thinking we’re going for steak or something,” Fernandez said. “I’m like, ‘All right, where are we eating?’ It was the seniors’ job to figure out where we were going to eat after the game, and all they said was, ‘Can we just go to Burger King?’ I’m like, ‘That’s where you want to go? Sure, yeah, let’s go.’ ”
HIGH SCHOOL SOFTBALL PHOTO GALLERIES
His late dinner wasn’t a steak, but Fernandez had to admit in this situation, “It tasted like steak.”
It’s been almost 10 years since that triumphant postgame trek to see the King in Akron, but it all seems crystal clear in the memories of those who lived it.
The Rams claimed the only state title in program history by defeating Bellville Clear Fork 4-2 on June 6, 2009, at Firestone Stadium, grabbing the elusive brass ring in their fifth trip to the Final Four.
The team gathered for a 10-year reunion at Wednesday’s game against Northwest. Not surprisingly, nobody could quite believe it’s been a decade.
“When I hear people talk and reminisce about it, it kind of gives me goosebumps,” said Brittany Fernandez, the junior pitcher who won both state games in 2009. “It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, we won. We really did it.’ It’s bringing up a bunch of emotions to me.”
Paul Fernandez is her uncle and had won more than 400 games at the Ross helm before winning the state championship. He said the trip to Burger King was followed by some parking-lot frivolity back at the hotel.
“A lot of the parents were still waiting out in the parking lot having a good time,” Fernandez said. “I went out there with the trophy and set it in the back of Tom Ellinghausen’s pickup truck, then I took it inside. It slept with me, my son and Jim (Kernohan) in the hotel room that night. It was a happy trophy.”
Searching for a title
The Ross softball program grew into a state contender in the two decades before the championship celebration in Akron. But it was starting to feel like maybe a title wasn’t meant to happen.
The Rams made it to the Final Four in Ashland in 1993, 1994, 1999 (Division I) and 2005. The first three trips resulted in losses to Richmond Edison South, Warren Champion and Pickerington, respectively. The fourth berth included a 10-inning win over LaGrange Keystone and then an agonizing 10-inning loss to Akron Springfield in the title game.
The 2009 team probably wasn’t the most talented unit in Ross history. One could make the argument that the Rams had some better squads that didn’t even make it to state.
But it all came together at the right time in ’09. The team had six seniors — shortstop Kaitlyn Strunk, second baseman Rachael Connaughton, catcher Nell Wilson, and outfielders Heather Freeman, Hannah Ellinghausen and Brittany Berry.
“I’d have to say it was the least-expected champion of all our teams that made it there,” Paul Fernandez said. “I’m not an astronomer or anything like that, but the stars and planets have got to line up for certain things to happen. You’ve got to have breaks and luck. That’s how this happened.”
The Rams had a regular-season record of 18-7 in 2009. Very solid, but not the kind of success that would stamp a state championship contender.
The tournament trail included 1-0 victories over Wilmington, Western Brown and Tipp City Tippecanoe. The latter clinched a trip to state, ending in the bottom of the 10th inning when junior Caitlin Denney scored from second base on an error at Northmont.
Brittany Fernandez had led off with a double, and Denney went in to run for her. Sophomore left fielder Marcy Warman popped up a bunt to Tipp third baseman Alex Dawes, who made the catch and tried to double off Denney at second base, but the ball rolled into center field and Denney came home.
There was some question as to whether Denney actually made it back to the bag to tag up. Denney said at the time that she thought she made it. Today, the consensus seems to be that she did not. But Tippecanoe didn’t appeal, so the point was moot.
“I was about in shock,” Denney said after the game. “Then I kind of just got tackled by everybody. Did a little damage to me too, but I’ll be OK.”
Added Brittany Fernandez, “I’m glad Caitlin ran for me. I probably wouldn’t have made it in time.”
Friday, June 5, 2009
At Firestone Stadium, Akron
Ross 4, Byesville Meadowbrook 0
The state semifinal challenge came in the form of Meadowbrook senior pitcher Kinsi Tellep, one of Ohio’s top strikeout specialists.
Tellep is still listed among the state’s all-time leaders in whiffs with 1,260. Her numbers were impressive enough to make Paul Fernandez think this girl had to be a true fireballer.
His super scouts, Paul Reasch and Gregg Combs, told him otherwise. And they were telling the truth.
Tellep could throw it, no question. But she wasn’t the dominant force that Ross was expecting. The Rams struck out eight times and collected eight hits while scoring a run in four different innings to blank Meadowbrook (22-8).
Brittany Fernandez took care of her business in the circle. Fernandez — one of many Ross pitchers through the years to thrive under the tutelage of pitching coach Bob Walton, aka Senor Smoke — tossed a two-hitter with six strikeouts and no walks.
Warman, who was hitting .233 at that point and was 0-for-14 in the postseason, went 2-for-3 with a pair of doubles. Wilson lifted two sacrifice flies. Strunk had two doubles, a single and an RBI, and Connaughton added two hits.
“She threw me a lot of inside,” Strunk said at the time. “I hate inside, but for some reason today I was on it.”
It hadn’t been a great season for Strunk. But she wielded a .444 bat in the tournament and would provide a big hit the next night as Ross took aim at its first state title.
Saturday, June 6, 2009
At Firestone Stadium, Akron
Ross 4, Bellville Clear Fork 2
The Rams’ second appearance in a state final wasn’t going so well as they came to the plate in the bottom of the fifth inning. Ross trailed 2-0.
Brittany Fernandez gave up two runs in the top of the fourth and wasn’t dealing with it very well.
“I know I kind of got down,” she recalled this week. “There was a moment where I actually thought, ‘Hey, I don’t think we’re going to win this game.’ ”
Wilson admitted she didn’t do much to help her pitcher’s mind-set. Fernandez got out of the fourth inning by throwing to home plate and forcing Wilson to tag a runner for the third out instead of taking the easier route of throwing to first base.
“I was just yelling at her, and in the dugout she starts crying,” Wilson recalled. “Rachael Connaughton tells me to stop yelling at her because she’s going to have to pitch. There’s a lot of memories, but that’s the one that sticks out from that game.”
Ten years later, Fernandez is still not sure why she made the risky play.
“Nell’s totally mentioned that to me several times,” she said. “I saw that girl heading home and for some reason, in that moment, I felt like I needed to throw it home. Thankfully, it worked out.”
It worked out because Ross rallied for four runs in the fifth. Sophomore third baseman Shelby Richards walked, Strunk and Wilson followed with RBI doubles, Fernandez had a run-scoring single and sophomore Gina Huff delivered a pinch-hit RBI single to make it 4-2.
Huff was an unlikely offensive contributor. She was generally a defense-only first baseman who wasn’t getting a lot of chances to swing the bat.
Paul Fernandez said it was assistant coach Jim Kernohan’s decision to send Huff to the plate in that situation. She responded with a line drive up the middle for a big insurance run.
“Oh my gosh, I was so scared,” Huff said this week. “I was like, ‘They want me? Are they sure?’ All I kept thinking was that my team was depending on me. I knew my dad was watching, and I wanted to make him proud. I just tried to stay really focused and kind of drown out the crowd. I couldn’t believe I got the hit. That was really cool.”
Brittany Fernandez stayed the course. “Robot mode” is how she described her demeanor in the circle. She would finish with a six-hitter, five strikeouts and no walks.
Clear Fork did get two hits in the sixth, but Ross junior right fielder Lydia Lakes nailed a runner at third to keep the Colts from scoring.
In the seventh, Fernandez struck out the first two batters. Jessica Perkins then hit a grounder to Strunk, who followed by bouncing a throw to Huff at first. The 10th-grader made the short-hop scoop, and the season was over.
“A horrible throw,” Strunk recalled. “But Gina scooped it right up, and then I was tackled out of nowhere. I didn’t even know who did it.”
“I remember we all just ran towards Brittany. We attempted a dogpile and it was awful … it was not a good dogpile,” Huff said. “I just remember looking up at everybody in the stands and how excited our coaches were. Fern was just beside himself. I don’t think it all really registered to us what a big deal it was. I think we all realized it later.”
Connaughton, a four-year starter along with Wilson and Strunk, breaks out the DVD to watch the game from time to time.
“The high of it was amazing. I still have a high from that,” she recalled. “That game was a roller coaster of emotions. When we got behind, I remember all of us — especially the seniors — could barely watch when people were up to bat. We were in the dugout and closing our eyes and just hoping for the best. We got some really good clutch hits.”
Paul Fernandez was emotional as he contemplated what it meant to past and present Ramballers to finally win a state championship.
“I can remember the whole game just clamping onto that scouting report and saying, ‘Come on, come on, come on,’ ” Fernandez said. “I can still remember Gina stretching out and getting that final scoop. I remember hugging my son Sam and all the coaches. I remember grabbing my niece and telling her that she pitched a great game and that I was so proud of her.”
Connaughton, Wilson and Fernandez all had two hits in the title game as the Rams finalized their 26-7 record. Connaughton played summer ball with Clear Fork pitcher Rachel Wilson, so there was some familiarity.
Taylor Thomas was 3-for-3 for the Colts (29-5).
“I can vividly remember that bus ride from the hotel to the stadium that day,” Paul Fernandez said. “They’re just talking with their normal voices, not loud or laughing or carrying on. It was ho-hum, just another game. I’m looking over at Kernohan and saying, ‘Do you think they even know we’re playing in a state championship game?’ He’s like, ‘Who knows? Who can figure it out?’ ”
State champions for life
The one thing about a state championship is that it doesn’t go away. It follows athletes forever. Sometimes you get a chance to win another one, but that’s not often the case.
Clear Fork is still seeking its first state crown, having made it back to the Final Four in 2011. Ross got to state in 2016 — and got drilled 18-0 by Keystone — in what turned out to be the final game for Paul Fernandez in the program.
Married life is reality for the majority of the 2009 Rams. Some have children. Most of the players still live in the area.
Connaughton (now Rachael Harris) had her first child last September and works for Nature’s Way, the family business specializing in bird-feeding needs. She went to Rio Grande to continue her softball career, but never played after a coaching change.
“I want to give a huge thank you to the coaches we had at Ross,” she said. “As a high schooler, I think you take things for granted. Everyone tells you to enjoy and take advantage of your high school glory days, and you don’t really realize how much it impacts your life and how much our coaches really impacted our lives on and off the field. We are really grateful for all of them.”
Huff has two daughters (ages 3 and 6) and works as a behavior therapist at the Cincinnati Center for Autism. She admitted to getting emotional at Wednesday’s reunion ceremony when the 2009 team was introduced to the crowd.
“I started to get teary-eyed when they started talking about the game,” Huff said. “It was really cool what we did. Unforgettable, that’s for sure.”
Strunk (now Kaitlyn Kaiser) didn’t play college softball. She’s got a two-month-old girl and works as a physician assistant for University of Cincinnati Health.
“It’s always a goal to go to state, but we weren’t really expecting it,” she said. “We got along really well. Not that in years past we didn’t, but this team was different where we all got along no matter what. I think that chemistry really helped us.”
Wilson (now Nell Moeller) went on to play softball for two years at Mount St. Joseph before back problems ended her collegiate career.
She grew up in the Ramball culture — her grandfather, Gary Weitzel, took the program to new heights starting in the 1980s and was an assistant coach in 2009.
“I feel like I will always bleed maroon and gold,” said Wilson, who works in education at North College Hill Middle School and recently coached prep softball at Clark Montessori and Colerain. “Winning a state championship is my second-best moment, right after getting married. We actually broke the bad juju in the air of going to state and not being able to win it all.
“I definitely cherish it more now that I coached high school ball. I kept telling those players you don’t have to like me, but I promise at the end of the year you’re going to look back at all these memories and be thankful for them. I’d have kids say, ‘Coach, you are absolutely right. They’re the best times.’ ”
Brittany Fernandez is single and also in education at Fairfield West Elementary School. She played some college softball at Rio Grande and Miami University Hamilton.
“We just had one of those miracle seasons,” Fernandez said. “My dad always says we just had that eye-of-the-tiger look in our team. We had all the ingredients. I don’t know if I want to say we had a little bit of magic, but it was just kind of ‘poof’ and things starting really going in our favor.
“I’ve been around Ramball forever. There was no turning away from that life. I knew eventually it was going to be who I was and who I still am today.”
The 59-year-old Paul Fernandez, a 1978 Ross graduate, lives in Fairfield. He works as a mole trapper for Mole Patrol Service and as a reset ambassador for Rhinegeist Brewery.
Fernandez said it’s hard to believe that only two Butler County teams, Ross and Hamilton (Class AAA in 1985), have ever won state titles.
“It’s still surreal to think we actually did win the state championship,” he said. “When I started coaching with Gary, he always said we had two goals — win the league championship and win the state championship. Those were the only two goals every year. They were lofty goals, but we were able to do both with one magical run. It was awesome to be part of.”
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