High school softball: Lakota West two wins away from capping ‘special’ season with state championship

Junior shortstop Molly Grace said the Lakota West High School softball team knew this year could be special, but some affirmations along the way served as motivation to keep pushing the Firebirds toward their goals.

Now, after the top-ranked Firebirds checked off another box in the form of a regional title, they are two wins from the ultimate prize. They are headed to the program’s fifth Final Four appearance this week, as West (30-1) faces Massillon Perry (26-6) in a Division I state semifinal 12:30 p.m. Thursday at Akron’s Firestone Stadium.

“We have a really talented team, so it was kind of expected that we could be pretty good, but ever since the first rankings came out and being No. 1, it let us know we were good,” said Grace, who is in her first season at West after moving from Chicago. “We didn’t get carried away with it. The next week we were still No. 1, and then we were ranked nationally, and it was a reminder we had a chance, but we never took anything for granted.”

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And, they won’t take Thursday’s opportunity to keep playing for granted either. Coach Keith Castner keeps reminding the Firebirds this is “just another game,” though he jokes they all know it’s not.

Still, he wants them to keep that mentality because it’s what got them through a perfect Greater Miami Conference record for their first outright title since 2012, a perfect record against in-state competition and now the program’s first regional championship since 2018 when the Firebirds finished as state runners up. West is chasing its first state title.

“I think it’s just how they play together,” Castner said when asked what the key to success has been. “They are playing for one another, they are hitting the ball well and we’re cutting down hard on the errors on defense, and we’ve had good pitching all through the season with all three pitchers. We’ve got great focus. Every time they get up to the plate or step on the field or in the pitching circle, they know what they have to do. We’re back to where we were (in 2018). It’s special, and the girls know it and they are enjoying it.”

The Firebirds have outscored opponents 370-42 this season and really haven’t played many close games until the regional semifinal and final, when they beat Mason 6-3 and Beavercreek 5-3.

Belle Hummel (.624) and Grace (.619) lead the GMC in batting average, while Haley Hibbard (.556) is fifth on that list, and KK Mathis owns conference-bests in home runs (13) and RBIs (50) to go along with 20 pitching wins and a 1.33 ERA. Grace adds 47 RBIs and senior Ariah Peregrina has 44 to also rank among the GMC’s top 5 in that category.

Peregrina, a senior who joined the program as a sophomore, said the defense has been just as key – especially as the competition improves.

“We’re closer together and we’ve started to know how each other plays, and once you know that, everything kind of flows together,” Peregrina said. “That develops into really good-looking plays and then we’re hitting too and that makes for a good-looking team.”

Perry, a team that won its regional final 10-0 and semifinal 7-0, is an opponent that can hit, too, so the pitching and defense will have to be top-notch Thursday. West has just 21 errors this season, and Mathis (20-1) has a 1.33 ERA, 186 strikeouts and eight shutouts.

Castner said the “little things” will matter even more now.

“They hit the ball well, they’ve got a good pitcher,” Castner said of Perry. “From what I gather, they are just a solid team that’s playing very well right now. They are peaking at tournament time and that’s what we are hoping to do too.”

Perry also is returning to state for the second time in four years, but for West, no one on the current roster were a part of the 2018 state runner-up team. All four seniors were new to the program in the last three years.

Castner doesn’t doubt there will be some nerves going into the game Thursday but he and the players are confident once the first pitch is made, it will be business as usual.

“We’ve played some really good games, high intensity, so I think we’re all prepared for the pressure and everyone watching,” Grace said. “I’m not worried, but it’s super exciting and we’re all proud of how hard we’ve worked. It’s a dream come true, and we’re excited for the opportunity.”

Peregrina said the Firebirds just can’t allow themselves to get rattled if something doesn’t go their way, but Castner isn’t as worried about that.

“I tell them there are two things to remember -- attitude and effort,” Castner said. “When they come to practice or a game, and really in anything in life, if you bring great attitude and great effort, great things happen. We are one step closer, one game closer to having the team goal we would love to have, and we’re doing it the right way.”

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