Lakota East’s Hailey Holtman sprints between first and second base on her way to third for a triple Saturday during a Division I regional softball final against Lakota West at Centerville. East won 2-1 to earn a trip to the state tournament. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

AKRON BOUND: Lakota East edges Lakota West to earn trip to state softball tournament

CENTERVILLE — Sydney Larson fielded the grounder, threw toward first baseman Ali Lewis and then guessed it was a successful connection.

Moments like this are sometimes a blur, and so it was for Lakota East High School’s softball team Saturday afternoon as it recorded the final out.

“I didn’t even look over really,” said Larson, a senior pitcher. “I just threw the ball and I hoped Ali caught it and then we all got mauled, so I assumed we got the out.”

» PHOTOS: Rick Cassano’s 41-image gallery from Centerville

The ground out by Lakota West’s Casey Bramble was the final step for East in its quest for a Division I regional championship as the Thunderhawks earned their second trip to state with a 2-1 victory at Centerville.

East (29-1) will play Westerville Central in a 10 a.m. state semifinal Friday at Firestone Stadium in Akron. The Thunderhawks lost to Grove City in their only previous state appearance in 2010.

Louisville and Elyria will meet in the second state semifinal Friday at 12:30 p.m. The state championship game is set for Saturday at 4 p.m.

“To be on a team that actually sets a goal like this and achieves it, it’s just indescribable,” East junior shortstop Hailey Holtman said. “When you come in with confidence and just do what you can do, that’s when you win. And it’s far from done. We’ve got a long way to go still.”

Larson pitched a four-hitter, struck out five and walked nobody. East’s two runs came on an RBI single by Abby Niehaus in the first and triples by Lewis and Holtman — first Lewis, then Holtman — in the fourth.

Lakota East High School pitcher Sydney Larson gets a grounder from Lakota West’s Casey Bramble and throws to first baseman Ali Lewis for the final out Saturday as West earned a Division I regional softball championship with a 2-1 victory at Centerville.

“I was so nervous, but I was excited at the same time because I’ve been waiting all season to be the one to step up and help my team win a game,” Holtman said. “Just amazing.”

Junior third baseman Cassidy Hudson and Holtman collected two hits apiece for the Thunderhawks.

Hudson was quick to point out the victory was for East head coach Steve Castner, who’s been unable to coach for weeks because of an undisclosed medical issue.

“It feels really good to play through someone and be able to get that for him,” Hudson said. “There’s tears every game we win. I blanked out at the end. I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight.”

Dan Castner and Jess Howard, who are coaching the Thunderhawks in Steve Castner’s absence, felt confident that East could get it done, even after falling behind 1-0 against West (22-8).

“It’s been an emotional season for us,” said Dan Castner, noting that his brother Steve is improving physically. “I’ve got a great feeling with these kids going up to Akron. I don’t want to say anymore about it because we’ve got to go out and prove it.”

Lakota East’s players pose for a photo Saturday after winning a Division I regional softball championship with a 2-1 triumph over Lakota West at Centerville. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

“We said before all this that we had cautious optimism. Now it’s just all out,” Howard said. “We’ve got to believe. We’ve done that all year, and it’s translated into good stuff for us.”

It was an emotional day for both sides and especially the Castner family. Howard, who said Steve Castner might be able to make the trip to Akron, found it all to be a bit overwhelming.

“I lost it after the game,” she said. “As soon as they made that last out, I thought I was going to be OK, but I just lost it. Even if your last name isn’t Castner, it truly is a family. We’re laying everything on the line for Steve especially this year, but also for each other.”

Larson retired the last four batters of the game. The Firebirds grounded out three times in the seventh.

“We knew we had to come out with all the energy and all the fire, and we just trusted each other a lot,” Larson said. “We have new people step up every day, and we have the ability 1 through 9 to have someone put one out of the ballpark. That’s something super special.

“We’ve wanted this for so long and we knew that this team was really special pretty early on, so we had to tell ourselves that we had to take it one game at a time. Then all of a sudden we looked up and we were in the regional finals, and now we’re going to state.

It’s selfie time for Lakota East’s softball team Saturday after the Thunderhawks captured a Division I regional championship with a 2-1 win over Lakota West at Centerville. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

“We’ve all been rooting for Steve. We knew that he would be so proud of us regardless, but we really wanted to get this done for him. This is his life. We know that and we know how much he cares about us, and this was a good way for us to show him how much we care about him.”

East is a junior-heavy team, and Dan Castner said he saw something special in the juniors when they were eighth-graders.

“I’ve been planning on this for four years,” Castner said. “Ever since this class of juniors got together, I said, ‘We’re going to the Final Four.’ You saw these kids lay it all out on the table today. They’re not all exceptional players. They’re just good athletes for this sport, and they play very hard.”

West was trying to get back to the Final Four after finishing as the state runner-up in 2018.

K.K. Mathis pitched a seven-hitter for the Firebirds. Ariah Peregrina’s single plated Alyssa Triner in the top of the first after Triner reached base on an error.

“I love my family, I love my brother Steve and I’m very happy for his team,” West coach Keith Castner said. “I wish he could be here today, but we all know he’s here in spirit and he’ll be back on a softball field. Their girls played very well and with class, and we played with class. They played one run better than us today.”

Lakota West shortstop Ariah Peregrina catches a popup in front of teammate Alyssa Triner on Saturday during a Division I regional championship softball game against Lakota East at Centerville East won 2-1. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

The Firebirds are losing seven seniors — Bramble, Triner, Remmie Steckler, Autumn Marshall, Alyssa Witmer, Jenna Harris and Cam Wesley — but will return quite a bit of talent next year. Saturday’s starting lineup included three freshmen (Mathis, catcher Kendall Forren and left fielder Belle Hummel).

“Our seniors fought through a lot during their four years here,” Keith Castner said. “The underclassmen did a super job this year, and they’re going to keep doing a super job. They’re going to feed off the seniors and what they did, and hopefully they can do the same thing and maybe two more steps.

“Not to say we’re bragging, but we feel we’ve established somewhat of a tradition here. The goal is always to be peaking at tournament time and getting to the Final Four, and these girls respond. They dig in and do what they need to do.”

Lakota West 100-000-0—1-4-0

Lakota East 100-100-x—2-7-1

WP — Sydney Larson (21-1); LP — K.K. Mathis (13-6). Records: LW 22-8, LE 29-1

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