AKRON — Lakota East High School softball history was made Friday afternoon. Now just one step remains.
Sydney Larson pitched a six-hitter and the Thunderhawks recorded their first-ever Division I state victory, edging Westerville Central 4-3 in a semifinal matchup at Firestone Stadium.
East, which took a semifinal loss in its only other state appearance in 2010, will return to Firestone on Saturday to play for the state championship, facing Louisville (26-4) at 4 p.m. The Leopards defeated Elyria 4-2 in Friday’s second semifinal.
“Watch out for the East Siders,” said Dan Castner, who’s sharing Thunderhawks coaching duties with Jess Howard in the absence of head coach Steve Castner, who’s been sidelined since April with an undisclosed medical issue.
“There’s a lot of heart in every one of these kids. It’s all hard work. They deserve this because they’re believing in what we’ve taught. I’m excited for them. I hope we can get the next step. Right now, I’m just waiting for our bats to really explode because when they explode, shame on that team.”
East (30-1) fell behind 1-0, grabbed a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the first inning, then watched Westerville (28-3) tie the game in the third.
Avrey Schumacher wielded the big bat for the Warhawks, going 3-for-3 with a double and a home run. That solo blast over the right-field fence knotted the contest at 3-3.
“Avrey’s shot was huge. I thought that was just going to get the ball rolling for everybody,” Westerville coach Brian Wamsley said. “But hats off to Larson. She’s got great control with that changeup, and she hits her spots. They’re a very good team. They’re going to be a hard out. They’re playing with a lot of passion right now.”
Larson said the faith she has in the team helped her shake off the home run. Schumacher said she didn’t expect to go 3-for-3 against Larson.
“We were talking about her and the way she throws,” Schumacher said. “We knew she wasn’t going to blow it by us, but she had some incredible spin.”
Was there a particular reason why Schumacher was able to have such a big day at the plate?
“I don’t really know,” she said. “I’m always in the back of the box, so I feel like that helps me see the spin a little bit better. I guess it was working for me today. I just knew where my spots and zones were.”
Abby Beckham’s RBI single in the bottom of the fourth inning proved to be the difference for the Thunderhawks. Larson retired 10 of the last 11 batters she faced.
“We knew that we couldn’t go up there trying to do everything ourselves,” Larson said. “The story all year is that there hasn’t been one person just leading us by themselves. It’s everyone taking it one pitch at a time and doing what they can do.
“We’ve had a tough run here in the state tournament. We’ve played a lot of really, really tough teams, so we’re just over the moon to be here.”
Cassidy Hudson was 3-for-4 with a double for East, which took advantage of three Emily Ruck walks, a hit batter and an error in the first inning.
Two runs came home when Abby Niehaus walked and Kylee West got hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.
“Our biggest thing is 1 through 9, there’s always people having a good day no matter what,” Niehaus said. “If you’re having a bad day, you don’t have to be worried because you know that somebody else in the lineup is having a good day.”
Larson struck out eight and walked two. Ruck, who’s verbally committed to Ohio State, pitched a six-hitter with eight strikeouts and six walks.
“I don’t think we went up there saying that it’s Emily and scared,” Hudson said. “I think we went up there saying we’re going to hit, and that’s what we did.”
Hudson, a third baseman, caught the last out of the game, moving into foul territory to snag a popup by Kylie Collins.
“I kind of thought it was going out, so I was kind of preparing myself for another pitch,” Larson said. “Then I saw Cassidy getting real close to it, and there’s nothing like that feeling.”
“I honestly thought it was going out … I took my first step in,” Hudson said. “But when I saw it … it’s a big side foul area, so I busted my butt to get it. I wasn’t going to let it fall.”
Westerville led off the third with an Emily O’Dee double and the fourth with a Ruck single, getting a two-out double from Schumacher in the fifth. She would be the Warhawks’ last base runner of the season.
Howard said she was proud of East’s resilience in the face of adversity.
“What we always preach to these girls is softball, baseball, they’re games of failures,” Howard said. “If you go 3-for-10, that’s a good day. If you’re a pitcher, you can fail 15 or 20 times a game not hitting your spots or throwing a pitch the wrong way. But you still have to come back and react positively to it, which is what we were able to do.”
Hailey Holtman had a double for the Thunderhawks and Cami Compson added an RBI for Westerville, which had never won a regional game before this season.
“This is the best team that I’ve ever coached, and not just as far as wins and losses go,” Wamsley said. “Just the team unity that we have … they’re magical.”
“I could go back to freshman year my first game and I couldn’t have written a better story for how our career would’ve gone,” said Collins, a senior second baseman. “Beyond the wins and losses, the memories we had at practice and off the field, those things are the biggest trophy I could’ve ever gotten.”
This is the second straight year a Lakota School District team has reached the state final. Lakota West lost to Massillon Perry 11-1 in five innings last season.
Steve Castner was unable to make the trip to Akron, but he was on FaceTime with his brother Gary, who turned his phone toward the cheering team after the game.
“I think our biggest weapon is our energy,” Niehaus said. “We don’t take ourselves seriously that often. It makes us relax. We don’t think too hard because in the end, we’re playing a game and it’s a game we love and we want it, but you have to have a short memory. If something goes wrong, everybody’s there, we’re in a good mood, and we’re there to pick each other up.”
Westerville Central 102-000-0—3-6-1
Lakota East 300-100-x—4-6-0
WP — Sydney Larson (22-1); LP — Emily Ruck (21-1); HR — W: Avrey Schumacher. Records: W 28-3, L 30-1
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