AKRON - Mathews' bid for a Division IV state softball championship was denied by Convoy Crestview on Saturday, but the Mustangs seemed as loose and confident as ever afterward.
This was just the beginning, as far as they're concerned.
The reaction in the wake of Mathews' 6-2 loss in the title game at Firestone Stadium was in stark contrast to that of the Poland Bulldogs, whose bid to repeat as Division II champions was thwarted on Friday.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Mathews’ Tabby Grannelly rounds third base and heads home during the third inning of the Division IV state championship at Firestone Stadium in Akron on Saturday.
Tears flowed freely and long, emotional hugs were abundant after Poland's 4-0 loss to LaGrange Keystone. But when Mathews coach Jim Nicula and his players arrived for postgame interviews after an on-field awards ceremony Saturday, the talk was mostly about what they felt is to come.
"Today just wasn't our day," Mustangs center fielder Tabby Granelly said. "But this is only the beginning of the tradition that Mathews High School is about to bring for softball. That's the way everybody has to look at it."
No looking back - or very little anyway - for the Mustangs, who will return every starter and all but one backup in 2013.
"We are disappointed because we don't like to lose," Nicula said. "So we're going to mourn a little bit, but we're also going to celebrate. Once we get over that, we'll look back on what they did this year. (We're) one of few Trumbull County teams to ever make it this far and that's just tremendous.
"We're young and there are going to be a lot of years. We're going to start our own tradition."
Another consolation for the Mustangs might be that they were beaten by a team with the kind of tradition they hope to build.
Crestview (28-5) won its second state championship in 10 appearances in the final four. The first title came in 2005. The Knights also were runners-up in 2003, '09 and last season, when they lost to six-time champion Strasburg-Franklin.
Crestview freshman pitcher Terra Crowle limited Mathews to four hits. She walked one and struck out seven.
"It feels awesome," Crowle said.
Coach Owen Pugh, now 394-137 in 23 seasons with the Knights, said his players had tunnel vision this season.
"The seniors especially - but the whole team pretty much - set the goal at the beginning of the year," he said. "The only goal was to get back to Akron and win - win a state championship. It wasn't just to get back to Akron and it wasn't just to get as far as we can in the tournament. It was to get to the end and bring home the gold."
Crowle helped her own cause with two hits, including a double to deep left field to drove home Maddie Etzler with the game's first run in the top of the second inning.
Crestview made it 3-0 in the third when Kirstin Hicks was hit by a pitch, Etzler walked and Taylor Springer drove a 2-2 pitch from Mathews freshman Cheyenne Eggens deep into the right-center field gap and over the head of Maddie Williams - who had been playing shallow in right field - for a triple.
"That was a blown coverage," Nicula said. "We had a coverage on trying to take away the third-base side slap or the push or little looper there. We wanted Maddie to be back, but we just didn't convey that as coaches and she (Springer) caught us. She hit it before we saw it."
Eggens scattered six hits She walked two and struck out 11.
Granelly got the Mathews (25-6) on the board in the bottom of the second. The Mustangs' leadoff hitter tripled into the right-center field gap and raced home to make it 3-1 when Entzler couldn't handle the throw from the outfield and it skipped away from her for an error.
Eggens was hit by a pitch to start the bottom of the fourth and pinch runner Jenna Seifert eventually scored on Olivia Rhodanz's bloop single to right field as Mathews got within a run, 3-2.
But the Mustangs had only one other baserunner against Crowle, who retired Mathews in order in the fifth and seventh innings. Maddi Grimes led off the sixth with a triple down the right-field line, but Crowle struck out the next three batters on 12 pitches.
Even so, Mathews catcher Hollie Shreves felt her team had chances to get to the Crestview freshman.
"She was very beatable," Shreves said. "I felt like we didn't hit collectively as a team as we normally did, and that's where we lost. We played very strong defense, but we just didn't hit collectively. It just wasn't our day. ... We hit a lot at people and I think sometimes we were a little over-excited in the box and we should have waited made her work a little bit more."
Grimes had two of Mathews' four hits. But like Poland on Friday, the Mustangs couldn't string together hits or baserunners.
"She had a lot of changeups and off-speeds," Eggens said. "When she threw them, they were there and we just didn't get on them most of the time. When we did, they'd go or they'd just die in the infield and they'd get us out."
Crestview scored twice in the sixth despite hitting just one ball out of the infield. Crowle began the uprising with a single to left and three of the Knights' next four hitters bunted, with all of them reaching. One was a bunt out in front of the plate on which Shreves made a diving attempt, but the ball rolled out of her and she was charged with a tough-luck error.
Etzler hit a towering home run over the left-field fence in the seventh inning. It was her last high school swing.
"Last hit of my high school career," Etzler said, smiling. "I was pretty excited. As soon as she gave me that strike, it's my favorite pitch and I was like, 'I'm going to hit this and I don't care where it goes.' Once it was high, I was like, 'Yes!' "
Those sort of moments were few for Mathews on Saturday, but the Mustangs are confident they'l return to Akron and the state tournament.
"You've got to do your work," Nicula said. "There are teams that get here and never come back again, but we absolutely have the ability and the talent to do that. We've just got to have the work ethic in the offseason."
It's the same one that led them to titles in the Northeastern Athletic Conference and sectional, district and regional championships.
And finally, to the state title game.
"I'm honestly not disappointed in my team - at all," Granelly said. "Nobody thought we were going to get this far. When we said, 'We're still going to be playing in June,' everybody looked at us like we were dumb."
It's safe to say no one will look at the Mustangs that way again.