Keith Castner saw a calmness in his players Wednesday that he admittedly doesn’t always see in himself.
“Sometimes the football coach in me doesn’t let me do that,” said Castner, Lakota West High School’s softball coach. “But these girls were really relaxed. They responded the way we needed them to respond.”
The Firebirds, trailing 2-1 heading into the bottom of the fifth inning, erupted for eight runs in their last two at-bats and knocked off Greater Miami Conference rival Mason 9-3 in a Division I regional semifinal at Centerville.
Taylor Williams drove in three runs, Alyssa Triner was 3-for-4 with a double, a solo homer off the scoreboard in left field and three runs, and Allie Cummins added three hits and an RBI for West (24-3).
“I wasn’t worried at all, honestly,” said Firebirds senior Stephanie Maldonado, who pitched a six-hitter. “I knew we were going to hit. We just needed to have the confidence and the energy of, ‘We know we got this.’
“I think we stayed pretty pumped throughout the game. Maybe we had five minutes where we were a little down, but we picked it right up and started hitting.”
West tallied five runs in the fifth inning and three in the sixth, earning a return trip to Centerville on Saturday for a regional final against Lebanon (26-3) at noon.
It will be the Firebirds’ first regional-final appearance since they made it to state in 2011. Can they get back to Akron?
“I think we definitely can,” said Triner, a junior third baseman. “We have a lot of strong girls on the team. I know they can do it. They’re very confident, and I think we’ve got this one.”
Mason (25-4) captured its fifth straight GMC championship and split with West during the regular season. The Firebirds won the first meeting 4-3, and the Comets roared back the next day with an 11-2 road rout.
“The girls remembered that 11-2 game,” Castner said. “They looked at me and said, ‘Coach, we told you. We told you we were going to keep working hard and we were going to get it done.’ ”
Sydner Carter pitched into the fifth inning for Mason before Katie DeBord finished in the circle. The Comets simply couldn’t stop the bleeding in the last two frames as the Firebirds sent 19 batters to the plate.
“That lineup is lethal. They just absolutely crushed the ball today,” Mason coach Liann Muff said. “We’ve had to play really tough defense all year, and that didn’t change today. They just hit us everywhere.”
Mason took a 2-1 lead on Elana Harrison’s two-run homer in the fourth inning. She added an RBI double in the sixth.
The first six West batters that came to the plate in the bottom of the fifth reached base on four hits and two walks. Williams’ two-run single to left-center snapped a 2-2 deadlock.
“This is the type of team these girls are. They’ve gotten clutch hits all year,” Castner said. “All I can do is call a certain hit or slap or bunt and they’ve got to execute, and they executed 98 percent of the plays today. I’m very proud of them.”
Triner said the big-game atmosphere “was frightening at first, but once you get in with the girls, you’re calm and you know how to play, so you just start playing.”
REGIONAL BASEBALL PREVIEWS
Maldonado struck out four and walked three. The right-hander’s won 19 of 21 decisions this season.
“I try to have a lot of confidence to keep me in that mind-set of not getting stressed and not getting too pressured,” Maldonado said. “I tried to keep the ball off the plate because I know they’re a really good hitting team.”
Lauren Betz contributed two hits and an RBI for West. Maldonado, Jenna Harris and Corey Weaver all drove in runs.
Harrison was the only player with two hits for the Comets, who are losing seven seniors. Muff noted that Mason is 70-2 in GMC play over the last four seasons.
“Those seven girls have been a part of the best three, four years that this program’s ever seen,” Muff said. “They do things the right way. They’re such good examples and leaders to the younger kids.
“I have no words to comfort my seniors except to tell them how proud I am of them and what they’re leaving behind. They’ve raised the bar for our program immensely. We expect to make a long tournament run every year. I don’t see any reason why we can’t do it next year.”
Lakota West 100-053-x—9-12-1
WP — Stephanie Maldonado (19-2); LP — Sydney Carter (9-3); HR — M: Elana Harrison; LW: Alyssa Triner. Records: M 25-4, LW 24-3
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