It's no surprise that St. John Central is one of four defending Ohio Valley Athletic Conference softball teams to make the 2014 playoff field. Or is it?
The Lady Irish are a sparkling 13-1 and top seed in the Class 1-A tournament, which they have dominated in head coach Jerry Magistro's tenure at the Bellaire-based school. The Green Gang seemed primed for a long run into the postseason, then injury struck.
Standout junior catcher Morgan DeLuca went down for the third time in her high school career with a serious knee injury - a torn right meniscus. Surgery ended what was a promising season for the talented slugger who was hitting nearly .600, with three home runs, when she got hurt in the Magnolia Tournament. She also suffered a torn right ACL during her freshman basketball season, while playing through a left ACL injury her sophomore softball campaign.
MORGAN DeLUCA watches her St. John Central teammates warmup prior to a game.
"I've realized that God has a plan for everybody. In the end, everything is in His hands. We don't really have a say," she explained with her right leg propped up behind the team bench at Amanda's Field in Bellaire while her team prepared for a game last week.
"You can train as hard as you want, but He has a plan and it was greater than mine. I'm letting everything up to him. It's His plan."
Magistro said the injury affected his team and staff in several ways, including offensively, defensively and emotionally.
"When you say Morgan DeLuca ... you can't replace a Morgan DeLuca," he explained. "You can up and down the valley and she's one of the top players. It's a shame that this girl has had to endure what she has in her three years. A healthy Morgan DeLuca ... the valley might have seen one of the best hitters ever. That's how good she could've been. She's also got a cannon for an arm..
"The injury also got the girls down, as well as the coaching staff," he continued. "But what are you going to do? You can't control things like that."
Even though she can't take the field, DeLuca is still there for her teammates, more emotional and spiritual than physical.
"It was devastating at first because you sit here and realize there are times they need you out there because they are slumping," she said. "I feel I have to help them keep their heads up and keep telling them to swing. Mainly I'm there for mental support and be the positive person they need because they know I'd give anything to be out there playing."
In addition to losing its No. 3 hitter, cleanup hitter Caitlin Sliva is still not 100 percent after undergoing a delicate surgical procedure over the winter.
"They say it might take her an entire year to get back to where she wants to be," Magistro said. "A surgery like that you don't come back from right away, but she is still out there getting the job done.
"I admire both girls."
In addition to the Irish, also back to defend their championship titles are John Marshall (5-A), Buckeye Local (4-A) and Steubenville Catholic (2-A), which has bumped up to 3-A this season. Only Fort Frye (3-A) failed to make the tournament.
Let's take a closer look at the OVAC Tournament, which, weather permitting. Semifinal action gets underway Tuesday at the J.B. Chambers I-470 Youth Sports Complex in Elm Grove.
It continues Wednesday and concludes Saturday with the championship contests.
Class 2-A, Field 3
No. 2 Wheeling Central
vs. No. 3 Bridgeport, 4 p.m.
No. 1 River vs. No. 4 Shadyside, 5:45 p.m.
The Maroon Knights held the top spot until just before the cut-off date, but a loss to Monroe Central gave the No. 1 seed to River. The Bulldogs are a youthful squad that has played with everyone on their schedule. The Pilots navigated their way through the PVC unscathed. The Tigers clawed their way in by using a strong late run after having to forfeit three games.
Sorry, Bridgeport fans, but I like Wheeling Central and River to advance, with the Pilots outslugging the Maroon Knights for the title.
Class 3-A, Field 3
No. 1 Steubenville Catholic
vs. No. 4 Magnolia, 7:30 p.m.
The top-seeded Crusaders play a tough schedule, as do the Blue Eagles. I'll take the Blue-and-Gold from Jefferson County.
Class 1-A, Field 4
No. 1 St. John Central vs.
No. 4 Bishop Donahue, 5:15 p.m.
No. 2 Madonna vs. No. 3 Paden City, 7 p.m.
The Irish, despite the injuries, are still too talented for any team in this division. They will crown the Bishops and the Blue Dons.
Class 3-A, Field 3
No. 2 Shenandoah vs. No. 3 Bellaire, 4 p.m.
This is a repeat matchup from a season ago when the Big Reds won in an extra-inning thriller. The Zeps get their revenge (sorry Big Red fans), but can't beat Steubenville Catholic in the finals.
Class 5-A, Field 3
No. 1 Indian Creek vs.
No. 4 Cambridge, 5:45 p.m.
No. 2 Wheeling Park vs.
No. 3 John Marshall, 7:30 p.m.
The Creek lost in the semifinals last spring, but won't this year against the Bobcats, who qualified on the last weekend with a win over St. Clairsville. The loss also hampered the Red Devils bid to get in the Class 4-A field. The Monarchs continue their dominance of the Patriots this year, and then take down the Redskins.
Class 4-A, Field 3
No. 2 Martins Ferry
vs. No. 3 Steubenville, 5:15 p.m.
No. 1 Buckeye Local
vs. No. 4 Harrison Central, 7 p.m.
This division went down to the final day. The Panthers will be seeking their third straight title and will meet the Purple Riders in the finals after eliminating the Huskies, who slipped by St. C. for the final spot. Buckeye Local will complete their trifecta by outslugging Martins Ferry. Sorry, Purple Rider fans.
Remember, these are just my random thoughts.
While in the prognosticating mood, I'll try my luck on the baseball side, as well.
On Friday night in Toronto, I like fourth-seeded Bellaire to edge past No. 3 Linsly in the Class 3-A final. I also like No. 2 seed Martins Ferry to upset top-seeded Steubenville in the nightcap.
The Purple Riders have only won one OVAC baseball title, that coming in 2002 when current head coach Anthony Reasbeck knocked in the winning run after current assistant Rodney Gentile came through with a two-run hit to tie the game with Meadowbrook, also in Toronto.
On Saturday at Vaccaro Field in Steubenville, Madonna (1-A), Caldwell (2-A) and Edison (5-A) will all prevail.
The Blue Dons will get by Catholic rival Bishop Donahue, while the Wildcats will hold off Wheeling Park.
Shadyside has appeared in two OVAC championship games under head coach Mike Meintel. Unfortunately, for the Tigers, they still haven't won one.
Hope to see you at a diamond soon!
North can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org