State-ranked Blue Jackets using big hits, ace pitcher to find success

PHOTO BY ZACH BAKER New Riegel coach Jamie Lininger (second from left) addresses players after a 2-0 win over Calvert in Tiffin Wednesday. Joining him are Blue Jacket assistants (from left) Tony Connor, Jason Lininger and Mike Cholodowitsch.

It’s one of the youngest teams New Riegel coach Jamie Lininger has ever had.

But the 2019 version of the Blue Jackets may also be one of the best.

“It’s funny, we’ll play a lot of teams where, we’ll meet them, and then they’ll say, ‘we’re a pretty young team,'” Lininger said, “and I’m like, ‘Uh, we have a freshman at third base, a freshman at shortstop, a sophomore at pitcher, a sophomore in right field, sophomore (designated player).'”

But the Blue Jackets, ranked sixth in Division IV, have been great for much of this season. After beating Calvert Wednesday, New Riegel improved to 20-3, 12-1 in Sandusky Bay Conference River Division play.

That win, combined with Gibsonburg’s 7-6 loss at Lakota, gave the Blue Jackets at least a share of the conference title, their first league championship since the Sandusky River League days.

Lininger has had some very good clubs, two of whom have reached the state tournament this decade.

When asked what made this squad so good, Lininger said it was simple.

“They just play well together. I don’t hear any kind of in-team fighting. We’ve got kids that can hit the ball from 1-9,” he said. “We don’t make a whole lot of errors, the effort is there, constantly.”

And that is reflected by things statistics don’t show.

Lininger pointed to his first baseman, Kaitlyn Kirian, and what she’s able to do defensively.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen Kaitlyn Kirian do that stretch at first base, but that’s a typical thing for her, that’s a play she does on a constant basis,” he said. “I could not stand up if I ever tried to do that, I’d probably not be able to walk again in my life, but she does it regularly. It’s a fun group of kids to be around, and they want to win.”

And they’ve been winning a lot. A big part of that is the offense. The Blue Jackets are hitting .367 as a team, led by center fielder Kristin Coleman’s .457 mark.

“We have a lot of talent, and I think we use it in good ways,” Coleman said, “and we know each other’s strengths, and we play to that, and we build each other’s confidence up and we work together well.”

In addition to Coleman, Kirian, Jordan Hohman and Bria Coleman are all hitting .400 or better.

And with an offense like that, there’s a confidence that comes with it that may not have existed before.

“And this year when we’ve been down … I mean, some years it seems like we get down and we’re done,” Lininger said. “This group, I don’t know how many games we’ve been down, next thing you know, we’ve got the lead on them. There’s no quit in them. That’s probably something you hear a lot, but they expect to win. That’s a good thing.”

A big part of the success also is due to Lininger’s daughter Kayleigh, New Riegel’s top pitcher.

Kayleigh through a one-hit shutout against Calvert Tuesday, a day after winning two games and allowing a single run against St. Joe.

She is 15-3, with a 1.95 earned run average, striking out 121 batters.

That gives New Riegel an element coach Lininger said it hasn’t had before.

“We’ve never had a pitcher who can strike out 10 batters a game,” he said. “We’ve always had good pitching, but it was more of, they can place the ball in the right place, and our fielders would play great defense.”

Kayleigh is different.

“Kayleigh’s got a bunch of different pitches, and she brings it,” coach Lininger said. “She was throwing hard (Wednesday), and she had a great game.”

Kayleigh said she doesn’t focus on overpowering hitters, just executing pitches.

“I think it’s like, the most important thing is to think about, not the strikeouts, but just think about getting the ball where it needs to be, and where the pitch is called,” she said. “And even if they do hit it, I know I have a good defense behind me so that feels really good.”

Not only has Kayleigh had a strong season statistically, but she got to be part of her father’s 300th win Tuesday, picking up the victory in the circle.

“And I think it’s just special for me to be a part of that,” she said.

New Riegel’s postseason is scheduled to start today, when it plays in the Division IV district quarterfinals at home against North Baltimore.

“Our district, I think we have three really good teams with Carey and us and Bluffton,” coach Lininger said. “But then you also have a lot of teams that are capable of beating you on any given day. A lot of teams like Calvert, if you let them in the game, they can beat you. North Baltimore’s not a bad team. You have teams like them, Arlington, McComb, Arcadia was in that. They’re all capable of putting some runs on the board if you let them in the game.”

When asked to play this team against the ones that made state in 2010 and 2015, the coach qualified that being the best team doesn’t always mean a state berth.

“We’re definitely a better-hitting team than ’15. Probably a better-hitting team than ’10,” he said. “And again, last year I thought we had a pretty good team, and in 2015, I thought we had a better team in ’14, 2010 I thought we had a better team, maybe in ’09 or ’08.

“My expectations for this year, I didn’t know if we were going to win 20 games,” he said. “I thought we had a possibility to. But these guys, we’ve got some kids hitting.”

And Lininger credits that to a love of the game. He said catcher Julia Reinhart and right fielder Bria Dailey worked on their hitting all winter, while designated player Jenna Gabel and his daughter played travel ball.

And that has all paid off.

“We just have kids who want to play softball, and they’re excited to play softball,” coach Lininger said. “The excitement in their voices when softball season starts is kind of fun to listen to.”

And now the second season is just about to begin.