This was a year of change for the Finksburg Lady Lions 12-under softball team. The girls had reached the age where they would be playing real fast-pitch softball for the first time.
This year, the rules allowed players to steal home. They could take off on a steal whenever they wanted instead of having to wait until the pitched ball reached home plate. Catchers now had to throw to first base if a third-strike pitch was dropped.
The new rules in particular required good catchers to handle these plays.
Well, those new rules didn't bother the Finksburg girls a bit. In fact, they thrived on them. The Lions went 12-2 to take first place during the Mason-Dixon Softball League's regular season and then went 3-1 to win its postseason tournament.
The team had been a so-so, 6-8-2 in the Mason-Dixon during 2014 and was knocked out of the championship tournament after winning two games.
Head coach Matt Gscheidle said he wasn't sure just how good his team would be this season. But he certainly didn't expect it to win a championship.
"I honestly didn't know we'd be as good as we were. We had to work a lot to learn the rules changes, and I was surprised that we picked up things as well as we did. I never thought we'd be one of the top teams," he said.
But they were, and a big reason was the fact that a number of the players had been there for four years. This lent cohesion to the team's play.
Another reason for its success was its hitting. The Lady Lions really hit the ball well and averaged 12.5 runs per game during the regular season.
And in a league where the players will still pretty young, Phoebe Zaranski, Laura Tipton and Jenny Fletcher managed to hit home runs for the Lady Lions.
Gscheidle moved his players around a lot, thus giving them experience in a number of positions. This versatility came in handy when the team was short-handed and girls had to move out of their accustomed spots.
With the new rules changes, catching was especially important. However, the Lady Lions were strong in that department. The team had three girls who could handle the job behind the plate.
Things started out great for the Lady Lions. They began the season 7-0 before losing one. They finished by winning five of their final six regular season games.
Despite his team's sparkling 12-2 regular season mark, Gscheidle was concerned about the post season. He knew his first place team would be a target.
"We had to be ready for everybody. In the playoffs, teams would be going for us and be aggressive on the bases. I knew we would have to be ready."
It turned out that teams were indeed shooting for the Lady Lions.
Game one of the tournament was a disaster for Finksburg until the final inning. Reisterstown had a 7-2 lead coming in to that frame. But the Lions exploded for nine runs to pull it out by an 11-7 count.
That win was a team-wide effort in which may of the players contributed.
Reece Dell had two hits and scored two runs. Maddie Brooks had two hits and an RBI. Phoebe Zaranski had a hit and an RBI. Myranda Buchman and Eliana Palmer each had two walks, a run scored and an RBI. And finally, Skylar Newberg had a hit for the winners.
Game two was against the North Carroll Hotshots team that gave the Lions their two regular season losses. The Hotshots would prove tough customers in this game also. The two opponents were locked at 10-10 going into the final inning. But there, Finksburg's Clare O'Dwyer stole home for the winning run and the Lions won 11-10.
O'Dwyer and Gracie Gscheidle had two hits apiece in that contest. Catcher Emily Riesher turned in a strong defensive effort. She made some good plays at then plate and threw out several runners going to first after striking out.
"She was our most valuable defensive player in that game," coach Gscheidle said.
Ryehn Byrnes walked twice and scored a run.
Then came two games against Charles Carroll that would decide the title.
Charles Carroll was unbeaten when the two met for Game one, and Finksburg had to win it to force a final contest. But Charles Carroll proved a tough opponent for awhile.
The two were tied, 6-6 after three innings. Then, Finksburg erupted for eight runs in the fourth inning and went on to win, 17-9.
The two now faced each other in the tournament championship game for all the marbles.
That one was a wild slugfest that saw the Lions ahead 15-10 coming into the final inning. Charles Carroll put three runs on the board in that last frame but got no closer than 15-13.
Gscheidle credited his four assistant coaches, Steve Brooks, Jake Dell, Steve Tipton, and Keith Zaranski, for working with the girls and developing their talents.
"They were really important because with them, we could break the girls into small groups. The girls could learn a lot easier that way," Gscheidle noted.
"It was great to win. We had a nice group of girls. The supported each other. The fact that the team's core has been together for the last four years really paid off."
These days, the Lions play fall ball in a tough league. Things have started a little rough, and Finksburg is only 1-3. But Gscheidle explained that he picked that league because it offered tough competition. In addition, the losses in a recent doubleheader were by only one and two runs.
Gscheidle says that he intends to bring his team back to the Mason-Dixon next year. While he'd like to defend his championship, he says he also has other goals.
"We want to be the best we can and to keep the girls getting better. We want to prepare them for high school," Gscheidle said.