Jim Piazza has coached Ohio's winningest softball program for the last decade.
And during that time, the mentor of Keystone (LaGrange, Ohio) cites a "family atmosphere" among the players, parents, fans and boosters.
"I sometimes feel like I'm coaching 18 daughters on the team,” he said. “It's a close-knit group that dates back to when they were 8-year-olds on a local travel team."
Piazza was referring to the eight senior members of the 2012 Wildcat team that posted a 32-0 record and won the school's third Division II state championship in 13 trips to the Final Four since 1992.
For guiding Keystone to an unbeaten state title and No. 7 ranking in the final POWERADE FAB 50 national rankings, Piazza has been named the ESPNHS National Coach of the Year.
"Any recognition is a reflection on how dedicated and focused our team was on achieving our annual goal of winning a state title," Piazza said. "After finishing as runner-up (in 2011) with eight underclass regulars, our players were determined to go all the way this season."
In 2011, Keystone bowed in the state finals 4-0 to Poland Seminary. This season, the Wildcats avenged that loss by the same 4-0 score in the state semifinals before ending the 22-game win streak of Greenville in the finals with a 7-2 win.
"We had great senior leadership with six four-year starters," Piazza said. "And five seniors will go on to play in college."
Those five include two first-team All-Ohio selections and Akron University recruits –- right-handed pitcher/first baseman Kenzie Conrad and shortstop Erin Pond. The others are second team All-Ohio catcher Bri Buckley (Ashland) and a pair of Cleveland State recruits in second baseman Alisha Silva and outfielder Alyson Broschk.
Conrad, the Gatorade State Player of the Year and an ESPNHS first-team All-American, was an all-around player and lead pitcher with a 25-0 record, 0.74 ERA and 178 strikeouts in 142 innings. She also went 66-5 for her career with 470 strikeouts and a 0.77 ERA. At the plate this season, she batted .485 with 44 RBIs, 16 doubles, two triples and a team-high 11 home runs.
Keystone set a state record with 45 homers, obliterating the total it set last year with 35.
Conrad had 24 career homers, two more than Pond, who batted .509 with nine homers, 12 doubles and 47 RBIs and was a second-team ESPNHS All-American.
"With the numbers these girls have produced, and what they've accomplished, this is the best Keystone team ever," Piazza said.
That's high praise considering the tradition and history of the program, which has gone 286-35 since Piazza took over in 2003.
Piazza’s teams also have advanced to the state Final Four six times with a title in 2006 and two runner-up finishes in 2004 and 2011. Piazza's last four teams have gone 117-11.
Overall, Keystone has won more than 700 games, best in the Buckeye State.
"Our players and fans know the history and tradition of the program," Piazza said. "They all take pride in it and set high goals every year. Our players were focused from the start this season and went the distance. They deserve all the credit."