By ALBERT GRINDLE
AKRON â€” Before each inning Thursday, all nine members of Eastlake Northâ€™s softball team stepped on home plate before they took the field.
As it turned out, Brunswickâ€™s Emlyn Knerem made sure that was the closest the Rangers would ever come to scoring.
Knerem stifled North to the tune of a no-hitter, propelling the Blue Devils to a 5-0 victory in the University of Akron Division I Regional semifinals.
Brunswick (23-5), which will play for its first regional title since 1986, will face North Canton Hoover (29-2) Saturday at noon in a rematch of the 2006 semifinals.
Knerem (17-3), who tossed a no-hitter April 26 against Amherst Steele, was downright feeling it in the circle. The lanky senior struck out 16, to bring her season total to 274 in just 135 innings.
â€œI never really expect to dominate anybody strikeout-wise,â€ Knerem said. â€œI just have to trust my teammates and my defense behind me no matter what happens.â€
Knerem, whose lone walk came on a 10-pitch at-bat to Courtney Dwyer in the first inning, certainly had to leave her faith with her teammates in the fifth.
After fouling off four straight pitches, Northâ€™s Jessica Slocum led off the frame and poked a sinking line-drive to the opposite field. Blue Devils right-fielder Kayleigh Brown charged hard, dropped to her knees and snow-coned the ball for a highlight-reel play.
Amy Metsch then hit a 210-foot bomb to deep center that Melissa Moore caught up to on the warning track and Knerem made a cat-like stab off the bat of Megan Passwaiter to end the inning.
It was as close as any of the Rangers (19-11) came to touching Knerem, although the sequence certainly made a few hearts skip a beat.
Â â€œ(I was nervous) a little bit, but Iâ€™m real confident in our defense and I knew they would come through for me, so I had no worries,â€ Knerem said.
â€œI tell the defense everyday, â€˜Emâ€™s not going to throw a no-hitter every game,â€™â€ Blue Devils coach Julie Salzman said. â€œThe defense has to be on its toes all the time every pitch. You gotta be ready.
â€œI thought our outfielders did a nice job today. Kayleigh Brown had an excellent catch there in right field for us.â€
The Blue Devils pushed across a run in the second off North ace Becky Fortuna (15-6) when Sara Haynes grounded out to first to bring in Natalie Romito.
Brunswick then worked Fortunaâ€™s pitch count â€” the Blue Devils had five 3-2 counts in the first four innings â€” and made the Rangers pay for miscues in the fifth.
Haynes kicked off the barrage by reaching on an error by Fortuna. McKenna Galloway struck out and Erin Doran sacrificed Haynes to second, which brought up top hitter Erin Morgan with two outs.
Morgan, who roped three hot-shot foul balls off Fortuna earlier in the game, hit a dribbler to shortstop Alex Mulac that she booted allowing Haynes to score.
Moore came up next and crushed a 1-1 pitch to deep center for a two-run double, ending any hope North had at a comeback. Christine Kasidonis and Megan Foley capped off the inning with RBI singles.
â€œWe just waited,â€ Moore said. â€œWe knew we had to lay off the riseball and just wait for a good pitch because she would throw it eventually.
â€œI just knew that I had to get a hit, so I went in the box thinking that I knew I had to hit and Sara Haynes got it started off and we all hit together.â€
From that point on, the only storyline remaining was Kneremâ€™s bid for a no-no.
After the nerve-racking fifth, the right-hander, whose combination of riseball, screwball and curveball was as good as ever, struck out five of the final six batters, capping off the game with a swing and a miss from Fortuna.
â€œSheâ€™s amazing,â€ Moore said of Knerem. â€œSheâ€™s ridiculous. Thatâ€™s like the first time Iâ€™ve gotten an out, actually, because she just throws it and strikes them all out.â€
â€œSheâ€™s a really good pitcher,â€ Slocum said. â€œI mean, she got us on her riseball. That was her out pitch. She got the best of us today, unfortunately.â€
Grindle may be reached at email@example.com or 330-721-4043.