AKRON — Sydney Larson’s last act with Lakota East High School’s softball team didn’t go as planned Sunday afternoon, but her heart was full.
The senior pitcher stood in the circle and did what she could in the Division I state championship game against Louisville. Ultimately, though, she simply couldn’t stop the Leopards’ bats from producing.
East was one strike away from its first state title in the seventh inning before Justina Sirohman’s three-run double on a 3-2 pitch knotted the game at 9-9, and Louisville went on to secure its first crown with a head-spinning 14-10 triumph in 10 innings at Firestone Stadium.
“I’m excited to be able to pass the torch off to people that I trust with my life,” said Larson, who’s moving on to play at Ohio University. “This team is in good hands. This has been the best season of my life. It’s been the most fun playing with my best friends and winning incredibly tough games against incredible tough opponents.”
The Thunderhawks (30-2) made this run without head coach Steve Castner, who’s been sidelined with an undisclosed medical issue since April.
Larson said East wasn’t sure what it had at the beginning of the season. By year’s end, the Thunderhawks were in the Final Four for the second time (they lost in the semifinals in 2010) and one pitch away from being state champions.
“We came out and played as a family,” Larson said. “It’s tough when you lose your head coach and we all love him so much, but he brought us together. Each game, each inning, each pitch, we all said we were going to win it for Steve.
“I don’t have any doubt in this team. They really had my back today. I wanted to bring it home for them, but I can’t be more proud of my team. They really did everything they could. We left it all out there, so no regrets.”
East was denied in its attempt to become the first Southwest Ohio team to win a Division I state crown. Hamilton (1985) and Kettering Fairmont East (1982) were Class AAA champions.
The title game was suspended by inclement weather Saturday night and resumed Sunday with the Thunderhawks leading 7-6 and batting with two outs in the bottom of the sixth.
Abby Niehaus singled right out of the gate and Cali Hoffman followed with a two-run homer, making it a 9-6 affair.
“Cali was clutch. That was amazing,” East coach Jess Howard said. “I hope that she remembers that for the rest of her life.”
“Honestly, I thought that was going to be my last at-bat, and I thought that would be pretty cool,” said Hoffman, East’s senior designated player. “But it’s not the way it happened.”
Louisville (27-4) got a one-out double from Kaycee Ollis in the seventh, then loaded the bases with two outs when Lauren Stillwagon got hit by a pitch and Alex Fankhauser walked.
Sirohman was up next, and the senior left fielder smoked that 3-2 pitch from Larson to the fence in right-center field to tie the game.
“I knew it was just see ball, hit ball,” Sirohman said. “Teagan (Rice) told me before that at-bat, ‘This is just like any other at-bat, you got this.’ That was the mind-set I wanted to carry into that at-bat. I knew when I got a 3-2 count that I was looking for something over the plate.”
Sarah Cantley homered to lead off the ninth for the Leopards, but the Thunderhawks responded with Hailey Holtman’s RBI double in the bottom of the inning. Then Louisville busted loose and scored four times in the 10th on four hits and three walks.
Sirohman, Fankhauser and Shae Thomas all went deep in the Leopards’ four-homer performance.
“This was maybe one of the best, craziest games that I’ve ever been a part of,” Leopards coach Andrea Arney said. “This team … we’ve talked all year long. They never give up. They fight until the last pitch. They never say that we are defeated.
“Every time we got in a huddle, they still looked at me and they knew they were going to win. That’s just the resiliency of this team. I can’t even describe it. I’m just so proud of them.”
Niehaus had three hits for East, and Cassidy Hudson, Abby Beckham, Ali Lewis, Kylee West and Holtman all added two. Niehaus and West each drove in two runs, and Hudson, Larson and Lewis contributed RBIs.
The Thunderhawks totaled 15 hits against Cantley, while Louisville collected 18 hits against Larson.
“I wasn’t expecting this game to go this way. It’s hard to expect to win or lose 14-10,” Larson said. “I have to give credit to their hitters. Whenever I’d bring the ball close to the plate, they were just all over it. I think that we’re both great teams, and it’s just what happens when two great teams play each other.”
East may have squandered some opportunities, but Thunderhawks coach Dan Castner said 10 runs and 15 hits in a state championship game is a pretty good showing.
“I would take it to the bank,” Castner said. “I thought for sure we were going to pull that thing out with Cali hitting that home run to extend our lead to three. They didn’t quit fighting on the other side, and we didn’t quit fighting. Our hearts were playing the last four innings, and we never stopped. Defensively, I thought we did well. We took a couple gap shots away.”
Howard said she takes pride in the fact that the Thunderhawks conquered Greater Miami Conference rivals Mason and Lakota West to make it to Akron.
“That’s something that’s been a hindrance the past few years for us,” Howard said. “The road to get to Akron for us, looking down it, was fraught with problems. We have to play those teams four times a year, then we had to beat them again to get here. I’m so proud of this team because they looked at it and said, ‘OK, we can do it again.’ ”
East jumped out to a 7-2 lead in the first two innings against Louisville, which committed four errors during that stretch.
The Leopards elevated their game as the innings went by. Arney said she believes Northeast Ohio’s dominance of the big-school division through the years gives their regional champion a mental edge at the Final Four.
“We play the toughest of competition all season long,” Arney said. “The teams that we play in our district prepared us for this moment. With us beating (Massillon) Perry and (Uniontown) Lake, they are both teams that could be standing where we are right now. We’ve won so many one-run games this year against great teams, great pitchers. That has taught us that we’re in every game until the last out.”
The Thunderhawks stranded 10 runners, five in the first three innings. Niehaus’ two-run double was part of East’s four-run second inning.
“We fought hard every single inning. That’s just something this team has always done,” said Niehaus, a junioor catcher. “I’m really proud of us and what we did.”
“This team is my family,” added Hudson, a junior third baseman. “I had their back, they had my back. We never gave up until that last out. We fought.”
Sirohman totaled three hits and five RBIs for Louisville. Cantley had three hits and two RBIs, Ollis added three hits and an RBI, and Fankhauser marked two hits and drove in two runs. Sydney McKeever and Lexi Zavarelle had two hits apiece, with Lauren Bennett, Kaylee Nolte, Rice and Ollis all plating runs.
The Leopards are based about seven miles northeast of Canton and brought a big crowd to Akron. Arney and her players felt the crowd support was an important part of the championship.
“It is so great to have the community behind us 100 percent,” said Ollis, a senior catcher. “We’ve been here three straight days, and most of them came back every single day.”
The Thunderhawks’ roster is loaded with juniors, so there’s no question they will aim high again in 2020. Howard said a little less adversity would be nice, and everybody is hoping that Steve Castner is back in the dugout next season.
“We said we’re playing for Steve the whole time,” Howard said. “Steve would’ve been over the moon to just have another sectional or district championship. He’s so proud of these kids it’s not even funny.”
“I’m so proud of everyone,” Hoffman said. “None of us expected to be here. It’s been a long, hard road. I know it sucks right now, but looking back, we have nothing but positive memories, fond memories, to come back on. I’m never going to forget this.”
Lakota East 340-002-001-0—10-15-1
WP — Sarah Cantley (20-3); LP — Sydney Larson (22-2); HR — LO: Alex Fankhauser, Justina Sirohman, Shae Thomas, Cantley; LE: Cali Hoffman. Records: LO 27-4, LE 30-2
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