Lakota East High School’s softball program is hoping this is a next-level kind of season.
The Thunderhawks have been very good for a long time. Indeed, the last time they failed to win 20 games was 2006.
But they’ve only won two Greater Miami Conference titles (2011, 2016), and they’ve made it to the Division I state tournament just once (2010).
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Junior Sydney Larson said the primary goal, a state title at Firestone Stadium in Akron, remains the same this year.
“I think that we’re one of the strongest teams that we’ve had in this program,” Larson said Thursday after East blanked visiting Fairfield 7-0 in a clash of GMC unbeatens. “We’ve got power from top to bottom. We are fast. Great defense. I think that we can really go far in the tournament if we all play together as a team.”
Veteran coach Steve Castner is a bit more cautious when assessing his team’s long-range potential, but he likes what he’s seen so far amid the persistent inclement weather.
“We are very well-rounded,” Castner said. “We have a lot of producers. We’re smart on the bases. We’ve got several good pitchers. If we keep playing the way we did today, I’ll be happy.”
Larson returns as the Thunderhawks’ ace in the circle. GMC Co-Athlete of the Year Rachel Lewis graduated and is now smoking the ball at Northwestern University, but East has six players back that got at least 50 official at-bats in 2017.
Against Fairfield, Larson tossed a two-hitter. The Thunderhawks (3-0 overall and in the conference) did all of their scoring in the second inning and finished with seven hits, one each from seven different players.
“It’s a huge confidence booster being able to pitch with a lead,” Larson said. “You can get in front of batters and go right at ’em, so it’s awesome for everybody.”
It wasn’t awesome for the Indians (2-1, 2-1), who stranded three runners in the first inning and two runners in the fourth. They went down in order in every other inning.
“We were fortunate to make some nice plays when they had runners in scoring position,” Castner said. “I think that’s a credit to our pitching and our defense.”
Maiah Hodge and Natalie Fields both singled for Fairfield, which played without its No. 1 battery, pitcher Taylor Delk (illness) and catcher Natalie Elliott (band trip).
Tribe pitcher Lindsey Mitchell was pretty good outside of the second inning, and FHS coach Brenda Stieger said not being at full strength had nothing to do with the loss.
“We have no excuses,” Stieger said. “It was just one inning. Everything fell into place after that. When you don’t allow them to string together a lot of innings like that, at least you can build on that. It helped us open our eyes and let us know we still have work to do.”
East sent 11 batters to the plate in the second. No. 9 hitter Abby Niehaus delivered a two-run single, Cassidy Hudson had an RBI double, and Hailey Holtman and Madison Beckham added run-scoring singles.
Larson took care of the rest. The right-hander wasn’t overpowering, but she struck out eight and walked one in just her second appearance of the season for the Thunderhawks, who have outscored their first three opponents 33-1.
“I try to use a lot of different pitches and I spin and hit my spots as much as I can,” Larson said. “I think it’s good with my teammates around me. I’ve found myself a lot easier than I did last year and I’m feeling more confident out in the circle, so my rhythm’s getting there.”
Said Castner, “She wants the ball, and she’s got a good supporting cast around her. She’s going to keep us in the game. And we don’t have to throw her every day. (Lefty) Jess Church and Kelsey Richardson also throw the ball well.”
Stieger said Larson’s performance was worthy of praise, but she still expected the Indians to do a better job at the plate after scoring 19 runs in their first two games.
“I’m stunned that we didn’t hit better today,” Stieger said. “Obviously, the outside pitch was effective. She mixed her changeup in there and got us to chase some pitches early. We need to see more pitches in games, but we’re all in the same boat with the weather. There’s a lot of season left.”
Mitchell and Delk were already slated to share pitching time, but with Delk out indefinitely, Mitchell will get lots of work in the circle for Fairfield. She plays third base or shortstop when Delk is pitching.
“Hopefully Taylor is back soon. She’s important to us,” Stieger said. “But we’ve got other players, and we’ll make adjustments. They just have to believe and trust me that when I put them out there, I know they can do the job we need them to do.”
The Indians will resume GMC play at Princeton on Friday, while East hosts Northwest.
Lakota East 070-000-x—7-7-1
WP — Sydney Larson (2-0); LP — Lindsey Mitchell (1-1). Records: F 2-1, 2-1 GMC; L 3-0, 3-0 GMC