ISHPEMING, Mich. (WJMN) – After a slow start to their season, the Ishpeming Softball team is playing their best softball when it matters most.

“We actually played sixteen games before we got to play outside,” said Ben McGuire, the head coach for the Hematites. “We were really young so that took us a little bit longer to get us moving, to get our defense set and things like that. Pretty much everyone is playing a different position than last year, we only have a few kids back from last year. So, it took a little while to figure that out. Once we got outside and could practice outside we improved defensively immensely. I mean, just a ton. What’s driving us right now is our pitching and our defense.”

Entering regional play, the Hematites find themselves in familiar territory.

After winning a program best third straight district title last weekend, the team is determined more than ever to take the next step.

“I have three players that have been part of the three-peat,” said McGuire. “My senior and two of my juniors. That’s driven them, they wanted to get to that. Nobody else has done it so they wanted to get to that. Now, what’s driving us is we’ve never won a regional with all of these district titles. So, it’s time to take care of that.”

One of those players looking to make history in West-Pac First-Teamer, Payton Manninen.

“I feel like that’s been the number one goal since the beginning of freshman year,” said Manninen. “I feel like our teams have progressively gotten better. We had a really solid team last year but I feel like we can do it this year but it’s going to take some effort and focus.”

McGuire says pitching is the team’s biggest strength and Manninen is a big reason why.

“She does a phenomenal job,” said McGuire. “She’s been our number one for really three years. She’s just very focused and she’s a gamer.”

Manninen is far more than just an ace on the mound.

“She’s a great hitter, too,” said McGuire. “She is one of our better hitters and she’s doing a great job. She was honorable mention All -State last year as a sophomore.”

McGuire says having a leader like Manninen leading the way exudes confidence through the entire team.

“When they’re playing defense behind her they know she’s going to throw strikes,” said McGuire. “She doesn’t hardly ever walk batters. They’re on their toes and ready to go. So, that makes a big difference. Kids love to play behind her because they trust her. They know she’s going to be around the plate, they know she’s going to keep us in the game. So, that makes a big difference.”

“Being a leader on the team has really helped with making our team play together more,” said Manninen. “I feel like we’ve done a good job being part of a family instead of just a team. It makes me feel good just being able to pick them up when they’re down. I want them to feel like they can come to me when they have questions or things like that.”

In order for the Hematites to capture that elusive regional championship, they will first have to get through a Hancock team that has proved to be a worthy opponent.

“We played them earlier in the year and they beat us twice,” said McGuire. “They’re tough. They play really solid defense. They have good pitching, so I figure it’s going to be a low scoring game. I figure both games will be low scoring. So, if we get by them then we will probably play Norway. I figure that will be a low scoring game, too.”

While the Hematites will lean heavily on their defense, the game might ultimately come down to the offensive side.

“Hancock is a really good team,” said Manninen. “They’re really well put together but I feel like if our team really focuses and plays as a team we’ll be able to pull it together and hopefully move on to the regional finals. I think the main thing we have to focus on is our offense and scoring.”

“If we can score four runs in each game then I figure we can win them both as long as our defense holds up,” said McGuire.

The Hematites will take on Hancock in the Division 4 Regional Semifinals Saturday at 11am EDT at the Bark River Sports Complex.