By all outward appearances, Center Grove and Lake Central have a fierce softball rivalry.
But in reality, they don’t.
True, they are meeting in the championship final for the fifth time. True, no teams have made more state finals appearances in the 30-year history of the tournament. True, the Indians have defeated the Trojans three times in the title game.
But no, Center Grove and Lake Central do not have a rivalry. What they have is a history, one that dates to 1992, the first time the Class 4A titans clashed in the championship final.
They haven’t met since 2004, when the Indians beat the Trojans 4-1 in a 12-inning thriller in the title game.
“I don’t think there’s much of a rivalry as far as the girls are concerned, and therefore there really isn’t a rivalry,” Center Grove coach Russ Milligan said. “I know that they’re the cream of the northern crop, the Region crop, and have been for a long time, because of the tradition of having state championships.”
With a tournament legacy mirroring Center Grove’s, Lake Central has won three state titles and is making its fifth appearance in the championship game. The Indians are 3-1 in the final.
Each time, the opponent has been Center Grove.
In 1992, Milligan’s first season with the Trojans, Lake Central earned a 4-2 win in what was then a single-class tournament. A decade later, the Indians dealt Center Grove an 8-1 loss in the 2002 Class 3A title game. The following year, the Trojans broke through with a 2-0 victory in the Class 3A final.
In 2004, the first year of the Class 4A tournament, the Indians beat Center Grove 4-1 in a 12-inning championship thriller. The teams haven’t met since, and Lake Central hasn’t been back to the final game since.
Ranked No. 5 in Class 4A, the Indians are 28-6-1. They have won 13 of their past 14 games and blasted No. 1 Penn 7-2 in the semistate final.
Although solid in all areas, pitching, per usual, is the Indians’ chief strength.
Senior Annabel Karberg leads the staff with a 19-4 record, a 1.49 ERA and 261 strikeouts. Freshman Madisen Tucker is 8-2 with a 2.44 ERA and 47 strikeouts.
Offensively, the Indians hit .337 as a team. The top slugger is senior Aspyn Novak with a .370 average. Sophomore Alex Hickey hits .323 and has belted seven home runs.
In short, Lake Central is in the championship final for a reason. Or rather, myriad reasons.
“They’re pitching is very, very good. Like everybody we just saw in the semistate, they’re just a well-rounded team,” Milligan said. “There are no weak players out there. Everyone can perform and do their job. After getting through six intense game, we also know they’re a team that can perform under pressure. The same thing can be said about us.
“We’re well-rounded, play great defense, we have very good pitching, and we happen to hit the ball better than everyone else. That’s kind of been our strength. But obviously (Lake Central) scores a lot of runs and does everything.”
With talent clearly not an issue for either team, the outcome likely will hinge on mental strength. Whoever flexes the most will likely be champion.
“We have to stay focused,” senior third baseman Victoria Boyer said. “Obviously the hype of a state (championship) game can really blow everyone away. People can really start playing outside of themselves, doing things that they don’t normally do.
“We just have to stay focused and stay within ourselves and not change anything, just go out and play our game and take control.”
Milligan, who has guided the Trojans to four of their five state titles, puts it this way.
“Just like last weekend, my mantra for the girls was, ‘We’ve just got to be the calmest, coolest, collected team out there. Don’t try to do something we haven’t done all year long,'” he said. “We’ve just got to maintain ourselves and be cool and calm and collected.
“The team that makes the fewest mistakes is always the team that wins.”
LAKE CENTRAL’S POSTSEASON HISTORY
State championships: 1992, 2002, 2004
State finals appearances: 1988, 1992, 1995, 1996, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2015
Semistate championships: 1992, 1995, 1996, 2015
Regional championships: 1988, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015
Sectional championships: 1988, 1989, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015