Sights and sounds: Lakota West wins Cincinnati’s 1st big-school state title since 1985
The Firebirds took down Holland Springfield, 9-2, Saturday afternoon to capture the program’s first state championship.
Shelby Dermer, Cincinnati Enquirer
AKRON — The cloud that has loomed over Greater Cincinnati Division I softball programs for nearly four decades has finally vanished.
On Saturday, there was only sunshine as Lakota West beat Holland Springfield, 9-2, for a Division I state softball championship at Firestone Stadium – Greater Cincinnati and the Southwest District’s first big-school state title since 1985.
“The first time in 37 years,” Lakota West head coach Keith Castner said. “It means the world to me, but it’s not about me. It’s about these girls and they know it. We’re a family and we really help each other out and everybody helps one another.
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“I can’t thank them enough for giving me the opportunity to coach them. I tell you what, they answered the call today and they answered the call two days ago. I’m very proud of them.”
Lakota West, in its sixth career trip to the state tournament, was making its second appearance in the Division I state final. Greater Cincinnati Division I clubs were a combined 0-9 in state title games going into Saturday.
“It’s a really bittersweet thing for me,” Lakota West senior catcher Kendall Forren said. “We’re really happy we were able to play one more game together and end up getting the win and working together as a team. It’s really sad, though, because it’s my last time playing with all of these people.”
Lakota West starting pitcher K.K. Mathis held a piece of paper during the post-game press conference. On it, she had written a prayer before the start of her junior season, telling God about her dream of Lakota West winning it all.
“I wrote it down believing and prayed over it every night for this moment right here,” Mathis said. “I’m gonna give God all the glory for this. I promised him I would give him all the glory for what happened out here today.”
After exploding for 13 runs in Thursday’s state semifinal win over North Canton Hoover, Lakota West’s bats were alive from the jump on Saturday, starting with Mathis, who delivered an emphatic icebreaker with a towering two-run homer to left field in the top of the first inning, her 10th of the season.
Mathis finished 3-for-3 with home run, double, two RBIs and a walk. In nine plate appearances in the state tournament, the James Madison University signee had five hits, six RBIs and reached base eight times.
“I just knew I had to come up big for my teammates today because this is my last time playing with these girls,” Mathis said. “This is the moment when you play your best ball, no matter what.”
The rest of the order came up big, as well, with eight Firebirds cracking the hit column. Forren, the cleanup hitter, went 2-for-3 (5-for-8 in the state tournament) with a walk, right fielder Lily Volmer singled twice and third baseman Haley Hibbard was 2-for-4 with three RBIs.
“We all go up there with a lot of confidence, which is a really big thing because you know you have your team behind you,” said Hibbard, who went 12-for-18 with nine RBIs in the final six tournament games.
In two tournament games, Lakota West hit .393 as a team (26-for-66) and scored the second-most runs (22), trailing only Massillon Perry (23 in 2018), in the state tournament during the OHSAA divisional era, which began in 1990.
“We have really been hitting the ball well,” Castner said. “If it’s not one girl, it’s another one. If it’s not the top of the order, it’s the bottom of the order and vice versa. They’ve worked hard to try to fine tune it and it’s shown the last two games.”
Holland Springfield (25-7), making its first-ever state final appearance, didn’t take long to answer. In the bottom of the first, senior catcher Maddie Darrah launched a solo homer to right center field to make it a one-run game at 2-1.
As she did Thursday after a rocky first inning, Mathis found her groove in the circle. Over the final six innings, Mathis permitted just one run on four hits with two walks and five strikeouts for her 22nd win of the season and 55th of her career.
“We’ve had a lot of great pitchers at Lakota West; she’s at the top,” Castner said of Mathis. “She wants the ball in her hand; she wants to get it done. I can’t be more proud of her.”
Mathis was able to work out of a few Holland Springfield threats throughout the game. In the fourth inning, the Blue Devils stranded a pair of runners in scoring position when right fielder Hannah Schlachter flew out to center field.
Lakota West shortstop Molly Grace also threw out Holland Springfield’s Mady Yackee at the plate in the sixth inning, who was trying to score from first on Darrah’s double. Outside of Darrah (2-for-3), Holland Springfield was 3-for-20 at the plate.
The deciding play from the Lakota West defense came in the bottom of the second inning. Lakota West led 2-1 when Holland Springfield’s first two batters reached.
After a strikeout, first baseman Sydney Schwieterman ripped a line drive that appeared to be caught in right field by Volmer, but the ball popped out of her glove. The Blue Devil base-runners retreated, thinking the ball was caught, but Volmer sent a relay to Grace, who stepped on second for a force out and tagged Camryn Eckhart for an inning-ending double play.
“I just took the ball and started tagging every person I found on the field and eventually it worked out,” Grace said.
Holland Springfield coaches argued that Volmer lost the ball on the transfer from her glove to hand, but the umpires stuck with the original ruling after a 64-second meeting in front of the circle.
Just a few minutes later, Lakota West began to pull away, taking a 5-1 lead with a three-run third inning highlighted by an RBI single from Hibbard, a sacrifice fly from Lena Albright and a Holland Springfield throwing error on Jasmine Walker’s sacrifice bunt.
In the top of the fourth, Lakota West loaded the bases after singles by Grace and Mathis and a Forren intentional walk. A ground out by Hibbard and a two-out RBI single by Volmer made it 7-1. Hibbard knocked in Mathis with a base hit in the sixth to make it 8-1. Tionna Bright doubled with one out in the seventh, then scored with outfielder Belle Hummel capped off the offensive onslaught with a bloop single to center.
Hummel, an Ohio University signee who is in the OHSAA record books for career runs scored and stolen bases, gloved the final out for the second-straight game, chasing down a fly ball in the right-center gap from Holland Springfield pinch-hitter Taylee Long to start the celebration.
The Lakota West players jumped in jubilation in the circle after throwing their gloves skyward. Castner, Lakota West’s head coach since the program was founded in 1997 who earned his 500th win earlier this season, hugged his sons and his assistant coaches before meeting two of his brothers down the right-field line and talking to his mom on the phone.
“I got to talk to her; she’s too old to come up, and I got to be with my brothers,” an emotional Castner said. “They all came up here and I can’t thank them enough.”
Lakota West athletic director Scott Kaufman said of Castner: “Keith is everything good about high school sports. He’s built a program of integrity, kids first. They believe in him; they have fun with him and they want to play hard for him. That’s something you can’t replace.”
Lakota West 9, Holland Springfield 2
WP— Mathis (22-3); LP— Yackee (24-6)
Leaders: LW— Mathis 3-3, HR, 2B, 2 RBI; Forren 2-3; Hibbard 2-4, 3 RBI; Volmer 2-4; Bright 2B. HS— Darrah 2-3, HR, 2B.
Records: LW 28-4, HS 25-7