Cincinnati Christian School’s quest for an elusive district softball championship began with a scramble for players.
Athletic director Steve Gillens returned to the head coaching position this year after Stephanie Grossmann was unable to continue because of a work conflict, and the Cougars found themselves with barely enough players to field a team.
“I was trying to recruit a little bit,” freshman pitcher Briahna Bush said. “A lot of people were like, ‘Nah, I don’t like to play softball.’ I was like, ‘Come on, I would like to have a team this year.’ ”
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Bush played middle-school ball for Cincinnati Christian as a seventh-grader, but she was unable to play last year because there weren’t enough players for an eighth-grade team.
Gillens ended up with 12 varsity players this year. He’s got 13 on his roster — one soccer player agreed to fill in as an emergency player if she was ever needed, but she hasn’t dressed this season.
“Even if we only had nine players, I would’ve said, ‘Let’s go,’ ” Gillens said. “I think the situation will change next year. The girls will do the recruiting to get their friends out, and with the team doing so well, that will help.”
Ah yes, the success. The Cougars are 15-4, shared the Miami Valley Conference Scarlet Division championship with Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy and will play Bradford for a Division IV district title at 2 p.m. on Sunday at Mason.
This will be the fourth trip to the district finals for CCS. The Cougars lost to Bradford 4-0 in 2005, West Liberty-Salem 6-2 in 2006 and Covington 2-1 in 2007.
“I think we can do it,” Bush said. “I’m just giving it to the Lord and being thankful that I’ve gotten this far.”
Cincinnati Christian is winning this year with a team that only has two seniors, shortstop Kayla Stacy and outfielder Cheyenne Wilson.
Fast-pitch softball starts with pitching, and Bush has been dominant in the circle all year. She’s 15-2 with a 0.59 earned run average and has 209 strikeouts in 95.2 innings.
“With her travel-ball experience, she’s not like your typical high school freshman,” Gillens said. “Anything she does, she works hard at it. She ran cross country and played volleyball at the same time in the fall. She plays basketball. She’s in the choir.
“If you would say anything about her, you would say that’s the kind of athlete that you want to emulate your program. Somebody that’s not just about athletics, but a balance. That’s what this school’s all about. You’re going to get the academics, but you’re also going to get the arts and the athletics. She embodies all three.”
Bush said her love of softball goes way back. She said she started playing T-ball when she was 3 and started pitching when she was 8.
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As for her diamond success this year — Bush is hitting a team-best .607 with 24 RBIs and 10 stolen bases — she said she’s just doing what she does.
“A lot of people are surprised. I’m kind of like, ‘Well, I’ve done this for a while,’ ” Bush said. “I’m definitely proud of what I’ve done, but I’m thankful for my team behind me because I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”
She’s not just about speed as a pitcher. Asked if she’s a hard thrower or a mix-it-up kind of hurler, Bush said she’s somewhere in the middle.
“She’s got a good changeup. She’s got a good curveball. She’s got a good rise ball. She’s got a good drop ball. She’s got a good fastball,” Gillens said. “It’s all there.”
He likes to compare Bush to Grossmann when it comes to pitching for CCS. Grossmann (the former Stephanie Burlew) pitched for the district finalists in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Bush admitted she’s into statistics and especially keeps track of her numbers next to CHCA’s Camryn Olson. She was 13-5 with a 0.59 ERA and 224 strikeouts in 107 innings while hitting .679 with 50 RBIs this year.
“She’s been ahead of me,” Bush said. “I want to creep up on her a little bit.”
CCS returned its primary pitcher (Jenna Monk) from last season, but there was no hesitation in making Bush the No. 1 hurler this year.
Monk, a junior center fielder who’s verbally committed to the University of South Florida, was the best pitcher the team had last season, so that’s what she did.
“You do what your high school needs you to do,” Gillens said. “That’s the thing about these girls. Their attitude is, ‘Whatever you need me to do, coach.’ ”
Monk is hitting .603 with 13 home runs, 39 RBIs and 41 runs for the Cougars. Sophomore catcher Ashley Veldkamp has a .418 average with 22 RBIs. Stacy and junior third baseman Merrick Heid are hitting .400 and .356, respectively.
Gillens said Veldkamp, a move-in from Michigan this year, has been a consistent wall behind the plate.
Also starting are freshman first baseman Miranda Heid, freshman second baseman Karli Head, sophomore left fielder Jessica Fornshell and sophomore right fielder Tori Dusing.
Phil Bush, Briahna’s father, is Gillens’ assistant coach. Gillens had a lengthy first stint at the Cincinnati Christian helm, but he hopes to have a new head coach next season so he can focus on his AD duties.
If the Cougars can beat Bradford, they will become the first CCS girls athletic team to reach the regional level. The Bradford-Cincinnati Christian winner will face either Mechanicsburg or DeGraff Riverside in a 5 p.m. regional semifinal Wednesday in Greenville.