FINDLAY - On paper, New Riegel looks to have the makings of a team poised to make another deep tournament run next year, with eight starters returning from this year's district championship team.
But the one missing piece will be a very tough one to replace.
Cassandra Acree was more than just New Riegel's lone senior. She was more than just the team's second baseman and leadoff hitter. She was the team's leader. Someone who picked the team up, not just with her words in the dugout, but with her play on the field. At the plate, she was a spark plug who started off many a rally. In the field, she was known to dive all over the infield to gobble up ground balls.
With all that Acree meant to the team, it's no wonder New Riegel coach Jamie Lininger said it will be hard not having her around next season.
"She's a great kid; it will be so hard to see her go," Lininger said shortly after the Blue Jackets fell to Rockford Parkway in a regional semifinal. "She knows how to do all the little things the right way. Second base is a tough position to play in softball cause you have to cover that bunt ... she's really good at what she does. You couldn't ask for a nicer kid and I'm going to miss her a lot."
After losing five seniors off 2012's co-MAL championship squad, Acree was thrust into a leadership role this year being the only senior on a team, where expectations are always high. Yet, she never backed down from the challenge.
"I felt pretty strongly about leading my team," she said. "I also had to do it for volleyball. I took it really serious. I wanted to show the girls a good example. Just keep working hard all the way through."
Things didn't start smoothly in the season's opening weeks as the team got off to a 1-4 start.
"I think we just needed a couple games to gain more experience," Acree said. "It helps the younger girls to play more games to gain that experience throughout the year. We clicked together, and started winning games."
It wasn't a fairy tale ending for Acree and the Blue Jackets, as they fell a few games short of the ultimate goal of a state title. But as time goes on there will be several reminders of how much they accomplished, including the gold medal each team member earned for winning the district title. All in all, playing in the Sweet 16 is not a bad way to go out. It's a level 174 other Division IV softball teams weren't able to get to.
Acree said what made the year special for her was not how far she got, but the girls she got there with.
"I'm pretty happy with the way my senior year went," she said. "The girls made it for me though. Not just playing the games but playing with all the girls. We have a lot of fun together. We're a really close team."
Acree's final game was a typical one for her. She went 2 for 4 on the day, but played a big role in getting the offense going. She picked up the team's first hit and drove in the team's first run in the third inning. She also made several stellar defensive plays from second base, typical of what New Riegel fans have grown accustomed to seeing out of her.
Well, at least since the season's first few games.
"I got on her a little bit this season. I think she had more errors in the first five or six games than she had in the last two years combined," Lininger said. "But she really came on for us. I can't remember the last time she had an error. I'm going to miss her a lot."
As Acree moves on, the leadership mantle gets passed to the team's five juniors - Taylor Kirian, Morgan Noftz, Lauren Zoeller, Brittany Gillig and Ruthann Schreiner. Acree said the group is more than capable of handling the load, as many stepped up helping an underclassmen dominated team this year.
"The juniors coming up are going to be good leaders," she said. "With us being such a young team, I feel like everybody had to play their role this year. There wasn't just one leader, but everyone stepped with their roles."
But someone still is going to have to step up and fill Acree's roll as the team's spark plug. It's a big void to fill, but there may already be someone on the roster capable of stepping in.
With stars up and down both lineups Wednesday, one of the better players on the field may have been New Riegel's No. 9 hitter, freshman Leah Bouillon. Bouillon had two hits against Parkway, reaching base all three times she stepped to the plate, scored a run and made the defensive play of the day, a diving catch in left field that robbed Parkway's Kylie Snyder of extra bases.
"She's a great athlete in all the sports she plays," Acree said. "We were even joking she's a mini version of me. I was the freshman when we went to state in 2010. Now I'm the only senior and she was the only freshman, so we joked about me passing the torch on to her. I see her definitely stepping up next year."
From a 1-4 start to a district championship, the New Riegel softball team came a long way this year. With a combination of off-the-field leadership and a relentless hustle on the field, Cassandra Acree was instrumental in leading her team to where few get the privilege to go.
Even though a trip to the state tournament in Akron wasn't in the cards for this year's team, Acree said she can't be disappointed with what her team accomplished.
"It's kinda hard to sum up the entire year," she said. "I definitely felt like our team has gone through a lot. We started off struggling, but were able to turn it around. I'm really proud of what we were able to do."