Diamond Clubs Try To Push Away Pressure

Bats, balls and spikes are in fashion when it comes to Ohio State athletics this weekend, but the Buckeye teams are trying to avoid the pressure that accompanies such a big weekend. For baseball, that means trying to stay loose while fighting for a Big Ten ring; softball, meanwhile, is confident that it can reach an NCAA height it has not yet before.

In venues no more than 500 feet apart on the Ohio State campus, the Buckeye baseball and softball programs will host crucial games Thursday through Saturday. It is a new occurrence for programs that have rarely been on the same road before.

The baseball team will be attempting to return to what was once its rightful place at the top of the Big Ten. The Buckeyes enter their three-game series with Iowa that concludes the regular season a half-game behind first-place Minnesota and tied for second with an Illinois team over which they hold the tiebreaker while in search for their first league regular-season crown since 2001.

The softball Buckeyes, however, are in new waters. For the first time in six NCAA tournament appearances, Ohio State is seeded in the top 16 teams, having been given the No. 11 seed. The regional at New Buckeye Field, a sparkling 1,500-seat venue that opened this year, is just the second the school has hosted in program history.

The games will be big for both teams, but each is doing its best to avoid putting any pressure on itself.

"I don't think there's pressure," said pitcher Kim Reeder of the 44-9 softball team. "If anything, it's more pressure to be the underdog. We're on top this year and I think we have confidence going in."

"You have to play this game loose," baseball second baseman Cory Kovanda added. "You can't be tight. It's hard to succeed when you play like that. You have to remember this is a game and you have to have fun playing it."

Baseball Hopes Fun Spelled W-I-N
If that's the case, the most important baseball Buckeye might be Jake Hale. The lanky closer has been nearly unhittable this year – he boasts a 1.26 ERA and 13 saves in 33 appearances – but also provides levity through his goofy antics and handshakes.

The No. 29 Buckeyes, 36-15 overall and 15-6 in the Big Ten, will try to keep those parts of their routine humming as they get ready to face Iowa, which is just 4-16 in the league. The home team said there's no sense in focusing on the added importance of these games, a fact highlighted by captain Justin Miller when asked if he would say or do anything extra to get the team ready.

"Nothing," he said. "I don't think I need to say anything. Our goal is to win the Big Ten championship this year, so everybody in that locker room knows that we have a shot to do it this weekend."

Minnesota has hit the road for its longest Big Ten trip to face a Penn State team battling for a spot in the Big Ten tournament, set for May 20-24 in Columbus' Huntington Park. Illinois, meanwhile, will face a Purdue team in West Lafayette that is holding onto the last tourney spot by the skin of its teeth. Indiana, another half-game behind OSU, is hosting resurgent Michigan State.

Ohio State is on a two-game Big Ten winning streak, having shaken off a heartbreaking walkoff loss in the opener of a series at Illinois last weekend by coming back to take the last two of the three-game set. Head coach Bob Todd said he was as proud of this team as any he's had in his illustrious OSU career.

"I think it just shows a lot about the personality of this team," Kovanda added. "We could have laid down and died for those two games and the Big Ten would have been out of the way for us, but I think that just shows something about the character of the team and how much that means to us."

The Buckeyes will throw ace Alex Wimmers, who no-hit Michigan during his last trip to the Bill Davis Stadium mound, tonight at 6:35 p.m.

Softball Nearing Uncharted Territory
While a good weekend could get the baseball Buckeyes their 15th Big Ten title in school history, the No. 11 softball team is hoping to reach a new level.

The Buckeyes start a four-team, double-elimination NCAA regional tonight with a 7:30 p.m. game with Canisius at the New Buckeye Field. For the second time in school history, OSU is hosting a regional, the last coming in 2007 after the Buckeyes won the Big Ten tournament at home as well. In that NCAA setting, OSU won the first two games before dropping two in a row to Cal State-Fullerton to see its season come to an end.

To say the team expects a different fate this time around is an understatement.

"I think that two years ago, we were really excited about winning the Big Ten and we were excited to be invited to regionals," said junior catcher Sam Marder, who has 18 homers this year and the school career record of 42 as well. "We had a little bit of butterflies in our stomach. Now we're expecting to win. I think we're on a mission right now. We're not satisfied with just getting to regionals. We want to win. We want to go to the World Series."

That mission began following last season when OSU stumbled to a 33-23 final record after starting 17-4. The team fell apart near the end of the season while dealing with season-ending injuries to outfielder Courtney Pruner and pitcher Lindsay Bodeker as well as the death of Pruner's mother.

At the postseason banquet, the Buckeyes swore that 2009 would be different.

"They're just all on the same page," head coach Linda Kalafatis said. "They've been on that mission, they've worked hard because of that mission and they've been consistent all year."

The Buckeyes, who placed second in the Big Ten at 16-4, are deep and talented, as evidenced by the team record of 61 homers. Marder is a .367 hitter with a .571 on-base percentage, including a school-record 60 walks. Freshman shortstop Alicia Herron has set the school freshman record for homers with 12 to go with a .326 average and 45 RBI. Pruner has nine more homers, while Whitney Cooper is hitting .329 and Tory Haddad is at .307. First-team All-Big Ten choice Dee Dee Hillman hit .297 with 16 steals.

When it comes to pitching, the Buckeyes are led by Reeder's 23-5 record and 1.39 ERA as well as Bodeker's 16-4 mark and 1.79 ERA.

Reeder could find herself in the record books by the time the weekend is over, as the senior's 76 career wins are two behind Jamee Juarez's school record and her 10 shutouts for the season put her one behind Katie Chain's 2001 record of 11.

"Our program has done nothing but progress in the last four years, and that's what I had in mind coming to a school like this," she said. "I wanted to help build a program into a top-25 school, and I think that's what my class did and the classes after me. They're all focused on one goal and it's coming together really well."

Baseball at Bill Davis Stadium
Thursday, 6:35 p.m.
Friday, 6:35 p.m.
Saturday, 1:05 p.m.
Games available on 103.9 Talk FM or TedFM.com

Softball at New Buckeye Field
Thursday, 5 p.m.: Game 1, BYU vs. Kentucky
Thursday, 7:30 p.m.: Game 2, Ohio State vs. Canisius
Friday, 2:30 p.m.: Game 3, Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner
Friday, 5 p.m.: Game 4, Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser
Friday, 7:30 p.m.: Game 5, Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner
Saturday, 1 p.m.: Game 6, Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (if necessary): Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser
Games available via student radio at OhioStateSports.net

Live stats available for both on OhioStateBuckeyes.com

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