CENTERVILLE -- Mason pitcher Elle Buffenbarger relishes every single softball game she plays -- even Wednesday's five-inning, rain addled 13-0 shutout of Springboro in a Division I regional semifinal at Centerville High School.
Three months ago, she didn't know if she'd be able to play softball at all her senior season.
Buffenbarger was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and underwent surgery in February. The Youngstown State signee said she had a tumor on each side of her thyroid as well as a mass "of some sort," so doctors removed her entire thyroid.
The issue came to light because her brother, Seth, underwent treatment for an enlarged overactive thyroid last fall. Their mother, Jill, noticed similarities in Buffenbarger. The cancer diagnosis, though, was a shock.
"It was just weird because it's not as serious as most cancers, but just hearing the word ‘cancer,' I was like, ‘Oh my gosh' and freaking out. I had a lot of support from my church and a lot of people praying for me, so it really kept me calm," said Buffenbarger, who still bears a scar on her neck.
Her plan was to return to softball quickly, and she did just that, Comets coach Liann Muff said. Bolstered by well wishes from her teammates and other softball teams in the city, Buffenbarger made good on a quick comeback.
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"For Elle it was just a little bump in the road," Muff said. "She was so determined to get back to softball. I mean, she was only out four days before she was walking around our practice."
Now Buffenbarger (23-3) has helped Mason (26-3) back to a familiar stage in postseason play. The Comets, ranked fourth in the last state poll, face No. 1 Lebanon at noon Saturday in a regional championship at Centerville. The winner advances to the state semifinals in Akron.
The teams are familiar rivals because the path to Firestone Stadium in recent years often has gone through them. Lebanon and Mason met in the 2015 regional final (Lebanon won in 12 innings), the 2014 regional final (Lebanon won), the 2013 regional final (Mason won) and a 2012 regional semifinal (Lebanon won).
To ensure another edition of the rivalry, Buffenbarger struck out eight Springboro batters, including the last six.
The Comets' bats were effective as well. Mason scored four runs in a marathon first inning, fueled by Zoe Bishop's three-run home run, and tacked on another run in the second. Then Elana Harrison powered a three-run homer past the right field fence, upping the lead to 8-0.
"The girls are really seeing the ball well. There's a lot of confidence in their offense," Muff said.
Mason had a commanding 13-0 advantage when a downpour delayed play for an hour. Seventeen minutes after the game resumed, the rain returned, but both teams navigated it quickly to fulfill the required five innings of a run-ruled outing.
Muff said the plan for the regional final is the same as every game, and that's to play Mason-style softball.
"Whether we're playing Springboro or we're playing Lebanon, we're going to stick to our game plan, which is always sound fundamental defense, aggressive offense, aggressive base running and Elle hitting her spots," Muff said.
Although the season ended for Springboro (20-10), Mason has more work to do. And Buffenbarger said she has enjoyed every step of this softball journey.
"I definitely focus on each game, playing it to the best of my ability because a lot of people were saying I might not even play this season," Buffenbarger said. "It was really exciting that I could."