Lakota East coach Steve Castner talks to an umpire March 27 during a 10-0 softball win over host Middletown at Lefferson Park. Castner is currently not coaching the Thunderhawks due to an undisclosed medical issue. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

Softball draw: Unbeaten East gets top seed, hopes for return of ailing coach

FAIRFIELD — Lakota East High School’s softball team is unbeaten and dealing with each day as it comes.

The Thunderhawks have been a force all season, outscoring their 19 opponents 187-12, but they’ve been without head coach Steve Castner for about a week.

East, the near-unanimous No. 1 seed in Sunday’s Division I sectional voting at Fairfield, is moving forward without Castner, who’s hospitalized with an undisclosed medical issue.

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“He’s going through some tests and some rehabbing, and hopefully we’ll see him soon,” interim head coach Dan Castner said of his brother. “I don’t want to go into details because he’s a private person, but he just got moved out of ICU. He’s heading in the right direction.”

Asked if he expected Steve to return to the team this season, Dan replied, “It’s hard to say. I’m going to say in my heart I hope he’s there. Every day is a new day, and we’re hoping that every second is better.”

Dan Castner and Jess Howard are directing the Thunderhawks as they surge toward their first Greater Miami Conference championship since 2016. They can clinch at least a share of the title Monday when they travel to Lakota West.

East has allowed more than two runs in a game once this season. Mason hit a grand slam in a 10-4 decision on April 15.

The Thunderhawks are hitting .419 as a team and like to use their speed. They’re being led by Ohio University-bound Sydney Larson in hitting (.537, 25 RBIs) and in the circle (13-0, 0.43 earned run aveage, 116 strikeouts in 81 innings). She is one of only four seniors on the roster.

“They’re unified big time,” Dan Castner said. “They’ve got each other’s back. There’s a special kind of kid in each one of them. I’m all about love with these kids, and I mean it. They know how I feel about them. Our goal has always been to get to the final game and win it. I’m hoping we do get to that final game, and it would be nice if we brought Steve along with us.”

The Thunderhawks have advanced to state one time (2010), losing to Grove City 2-0.

Howard said East has been wearing a bull’s-eye all season, so having it in the postseason shouldn’t bring extra pressure.

“We have a sign in the dugout that says, ‘Be the hunter or be the hunted,’ ” Howard said. “If you’re the hunted but you’re still the hunter, it doesn’t matter if you’re the hunted. If you’re still going out and trying to pursue your goals, that’s what matters.”

Lakota East pitcher Sydney Larson deals to the plate during a 10-0 softball victory over host Middletown at Lefferson Park. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

The GMC took four of the top five seeds in the Cincinnati sectional voting. Western Brown (19-0) is No. 2, followed (in order) by Mason (13-3), West (13-4) and Fairfield (14-4).

East is in the Cincinnati 4 sectional and opens at home against No. 31 Withrow (0-13) on May 6. The next-highest seed in that sectional belongs to No. 10 Little Miami (14-6).

West was the state runner-up in 2018 and is the highest seed in the Cincinnati 5 sectional, which includes No. 6 Milford (15-5) and No. 9 Mercy McAuley (15-5).

“We know we have a totally different team this year, and there’s a lot of great teams in this tournament,” said West coach Keith Castner, whose squad hosts No. 21 Turpin (5-13) or No. 22 St. Ursula (6-11) on May 8. “Our girls are taking one game at a time and know we’ve got to work out a lot of things to get where we want to be.”

Like last season, the Firebirds don’t have dominant pitching. Freshman KK Mathis has developed into the ace with a 7-2 record, 2.23 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 59.2 innings.

“She’s starting to really find her way,” Castner said. “We had very minimal errors last year, and that helped us out a lot. We’re hoping to do the same once tournament time hits because our pitchers don’t have a whole lot of experience.”

West can still swing it and has a .422 team batting average. Returning senior Alyssa Triner (.432, three homers, 29 RBIs) is having another big season.

“Putting clutch hits together is what we’ve struggled with here and there,” Castner said. “We’ve produced some runs, but we’ve got to get them on a consistent basis against the real good teams.”

Fairfield is another squad with a consistently strong offense. The Indians have hit 16 home runs this spring, five by senior Lindsey Mitchell (.561).

Mitchell is also the Tribe’s pitching ace with a 9-2 record, 2.23 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 66 innings. Classmate Hannah Miller has thrown 43 innings and is 5-2 with a 2.60 ERA and 33 Ks.

“Our batting averages are high, we have a nice tandem on the mound … it just comes down to defense,” Fairfield coach Brenda Stieger said. “The days that we’ve fallen, defense has been a problem.”

The Indians are coming off a 7-2 victory over Louisville duPont Manual on Saturday. Mitchell allowed two unearned runs in the circle as FHS handed the Kentucky power its first loss of the season.

Fairfield’s defeats have come against East (10-0 and 8-1), West (14-2) and Harrison (2-1).

“I think we have every possibility of going deep in the tournament,” Stieger said. “We can play really well, and we can have days when we’re not on. We’re going to end up playing regular-season games into tournament week instead of having time to rest a little bit. That can be a good thing, but it can also play against you.”

The Tribe will open at home May 8 against either No. 11 Kings (13-7) or No. 23 Seton (6-14) in the Cincinnati I sectional.

In the Cincinnati 2 sectional, No. 12 Anderson (13-6) will host No. 20 Talawanda (10-10) and No. 16 Edgewoood (8-10) will be at home against No. 24 Loveland (4-15) on May 6.

Hamilton (9-12) is seeded 18th in the Cincinnati 3 sectional and will play May 8. Big Blue will either travel to Western Brown or host No. 28 Winton Woods (9-7).

Here the first-game matchups for the remaining teams in the Journal-News coverage area (all games scheduled for 5 p.m.):

» Badin (12-10): Seeded fifth in the Division II Cincinnati 1 sectional. Hosts No. 13 Indian Hill (1-12) on Tuesday, May 7

» Carlisle (11-10): Seeded sixth in the Division III Dayton 2 sectional. Hosts No. 15 Springfield Northeastern (3-13) on Monday, May 6

» Cincinnati Christian (16-2): Seeded first in the Division IV Cincinnati sectional. Hosts No. 7 Gamble Montessori (1-6) on Monday, May 7

» Fenwick (14-6): Seeded fifth in the Division II Dayton 2 sectional. Hosts No. 8 Bellbrook (7-5) or No. 13 Valley View (3-14) on Thursday, May 9

» Franklin (7-10): Seeded ninth in the Division II Dayton 3 sectional. Hosts No. 11 Oakwood (5-10) on Tuesday, May 7

» Lebanon (12-5): Seeded first in the Division I Dayton 1 sectional. Hosts No. 19 Tecumseh (2-16) on Monday, May 6

» Madison (11-6): Seeded sixth in the Division III Cincinnati 1 sectional. Hosts No. 7 Seven Hills (8-5) on Monday, May 6

» Middletown (9-10): Seeded eighth in the Division I Dayton 3 sectional. Hosts No. 12 Centerville (7-13) on Monday, May 6

» Middletown Christian (3-6): Seeded fifth in the Division IV Cincinnati sectional. Visits No. 4 Lockland (4-11) on Tuesday, May 7

» Monroe (12-2): Seeded fourth in the Division II Dayton 1 sectional. Hosts No. 15 Ponitz (7-8) on Tuesday, May 7

» New Miami (3-10): Seeded sixth in the Division IV Cincinnati sectional. Visits No. 3 Fayetteville (5-8) on Tuesday, May 7

» Ross (16-7): Seeded fourth in the Division II Cincinnati 1 sectional. Hosts No. 10 Wyoming (7-7) on Tuesday, May 7

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