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Queen of the Diamond

March 28, 2014
By Tony Maluso - Sports Writer ( , The Advertiser-Tribune

NEW RIEGEL - In classrooms across the New Riegel campus, students likely are to be found learning the tales of various historical figures who have left their mark on the world. Kids are learning about every historical figure from George Washington to Jon Bon Jovi.

But at New Riegel, history isn't just a subject to study. Last year, history was made.

New Riegel's 2013 softball season is one that will be remembered for quite some time. It will be remembered not only for the district championship the Blue Jackets won, but for the assault on the state record books that took place on the softball diamond.

Taylor Kirian hit more home runs last year than any player in Ohio history had hit in a season. Her record-setting 18th home run, hit during the district championship game, will be one nobody is likely to soon forget, and likely will be on the minds of just about everyone every time she steps to a plate this year.

Actually, that's not entirely true. There is one person who won't be thinking back to last year: the new record holder herself.

"It was a good feeling, but it's a new year now," Kirian said. "That happened last year, so I'm not really worried about it anymore."

Kirian's leaving the past in the past and focusing on her senior season at New Riegel, and helping the Blue Jackets make a run toward the state tournament. For her, it's not about the individual achievements, but rather how far the team can get.

When asked what was the best part of setting the record, it took her only a second to come up with an answer.

"That it happened in the district finals and that it happened against Mohawk," the University of Akron signee said with a smile. "That's always a good thing."

Those words aren't unusual for a player who has handled the fame that comes along with setting a state record. That mindset helps alleviate any pressure that comes along with trying to follow up a record-breaking season.

"I think people say (there's pressure) but I'm not really worried," she said. "I think I have a good team behind me. So it's not really about me; it's about my team more."

How the rest of the team fares will be important if coach Jamie Lininger's predictions are to come true. He believes teams will be looking to avoid pitching to a .600 hitter who holds the state home run record.

"This year's going to be different because what I thought was going to happen last year will happen this year, where people just won't pitch to her," Lininger said. "What I'm assuming they're going to find out is that we have so many hitters, that it doesn't matter. Put her on base, and Taylor Arbogast is going to jack one over the fence, or Kara Scherger, or Hailey Theis or Lauren Zoeller. We really do have nine kids in our lineup that can hit it out of the park at any time.

"It's going to be a new season. I think she's going to have a good year but she's going to need to be more selective on the pitches she sees. Which she is already. She's got a good eye for good pitches."

Kirian is far from the only Blue Jacket with pop in her bat. Last year as a team, New Riegel hit 36 home runs, the third most all-time in Ohio.

Scherger hit six last year, Arbogast five and Morgan Noftz four.

"They're great hitters," Kirian said of her support in the lineup. "If people want to walk me or whatever, they just come up and hit too. So it's not really a benefit to them to walk me."

Kirian means more to New Riegel, though, than just being a dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup. While she's a leader on and off the field for the varsity, her influence goes beyond the high school level and down to the New Riegel youth programs.

"My fifth-grade daughter wears No. 12 because Taylor wears No. 12," Lininger said. "She wants to be just like Taylor Kirian. I know the younger kids look up to her a lot. It's kind of a connection to the softball team. They have something to strive for. I know they look at her and the other girls as role models. It's good for the little kids at New Riegel to see someone they can look up too."

When choosing a role model, the younger kids in the community couldn't find a better one than Kirian.

"She's a great kid. Today she's actually doing some community service over in Republic," Lininger said during a phone interview on a Sunday afternoon. "Anything you ever need, she'll just volunteer in a heartbeart. If she doesn't have a 4.0, she's awfully close to it. She's the same off the field as she is on the field. She's a good kid that you just like to have around."

It's a feeling that's echoed by Kirian's next coach, Julie Jones at Akron.

Jones first spotted Kirian playing in the summer alongside another Akron recruit. While it was her play that first caught Jones' eye, it was the person Kirian is that made her someone Jones couldn't pass up.

"She played on a very good summer ball team, the Lasers Gold. I watched them play quite a bit," Jones said after Kirian signed with her team. "Obviously she has a very good swing and got nice size. I knew she was a very smart kid as well. All those things have a tendency to draw you to a player.

"We already got a commit from a player on her team, Caitlin Gambone, and her dad was a coach. He just loves the kid. We were only losing one senior from last year, so we didn't know how much room we were going to have on the roster. Then she goes and breaks the state home run record, and gets a ridiculously high ACT score. So we knew this was a kid we couldn't pass up."

Jones said Kirian committed to her program last summer before signing her National Letter of Intent in November. She says the team-first philosophy Kirian employs fits right in with the way she runs her program at Akron.

"You're always excited when a kid chooses you," Jones said. "You think that they'll know they're going to fit with what you're going to do, and you're happy that they see that same opportunity that's going to be presented to them.

"I was really excited when she told me. She's going to add so much, and she's a great student too. She's going to help raise that expectation of 'This is what we do at Akron. We win on the field; we win off the field.' It's very exciting to add a kid of that caliber."

Before Kirian's college career though gets started at Akron, she's hoping she can finish her high school career there.

Akron's Firestone Stadium annually host the state softball tournament, and with eight starters back, New Riegel is a top contender to make the trip.

Lininger admits the team has its goals set high, and realizes that along with that district title trophy his team won last year, comes a target for everyone else to aim at.

"The expectations are probably as high as they ever been here, and we've had some pretty high expectations," he said. "That's always hard. We've had teams that we thought would be really good and end up getting beat in sectionals or early districts. You never know with this game, Yo got to be focused. I'm trying to get them focused. ... And don't just assume people are going to roll over for people. No matter if it's softball, college football, whatever, teams will step up their game to play better teams. And, I think that's what we're going to see this year. We're going to get everyone's best shot."

Despite the weather not being kind, or conducive to outdoor practices, Kirian echoes her coaches comments about the need to stay focused, even when

"We need to play together as a team, practice as hard as we can," she said. "A lot of days we can't get outside so it's important to stay focused in practice.

"We get into a grove in the gym. But getting used the gym practices, then going outside, it's a whole new game out there. We've been trying to work outside, catching fly balls in the parking lot, just get used to be outside."

Following up her record-breaking season, Kirian isn't worried about rewriting the record books yet again. But rather, she's focused on adding another chapter to the history books. This one would be all about taking the team to the promise land.

"We have an experienced team; we only lost one player from last year," she said. "I'm hoping we're just as good if not better than last year.

"That's the goal. I never been to state in any sport, so it would be great to make it."



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