The final push: East seeking two more wins and a state softball title

LIBERTY TWP. — Cali Hoffman always hoped her Lakota East High School softball career would end in Akron.

The senior designated player never counted on it because these things are easier dreamed than achieved. But the Thunderhawks have turned it all into reality.

On Friday morning at 10 o’clock, East (29-1) will make its second state appearance in school history, meeting Westerville Central (28-2) in a semifinal matchup at Firestone Stadium.

» RELATED: Story & photos from Lakota East’s regional title win over Lakota West

“I never would’ve thought this would be happening,” Hoffman said. “It’s almost like a dream come true for all of us. This senior class, we started out with a lot of girls, and the last few of us are here representing everybody that didn’t make it.”

The Thunderhawks feel they have plenty to play for. Not just for themselves and their school and their community, but also for head coach Steve Castner, who’s been unable to coach since April because of an undisclosed medical issue.

Castner won’t be in attendance this weekend as East tries to win Southwest Ohio’s first Division I state crown. Hamilton (1985) and Kettering Fairmont East (1982) were Class AAA champions.

“We’re ready for the long haul and taking care of business,” said Dan Castner, who’s sharing the Thunderhawks’ coaching duties with Jess Howard in Steve Castner’s absence. “It’s all about business, but you have to have fun. You may not get to do this again.”

Dan Castner was an assistant coach in 2010 when East made its first trip to state, losing 2-0 to Grove City.

“We kind of tensed up in 2010,” he said. “It’s about how you handle a mistake, how you handle adversity, whatever word you want to use. If you boot it, bounce back. Play through, play hard, play focused.”

Louisville and Elyria will meet in Friday’s second state semifinal and they’re both from Northeast Ohio, which has dominated big-school softball since state tournament play began in 1978.

“Northeast Ohio is the hotbed, but I think every region has its shining star,” Howard said. “We’d love to establish Southwest Ohio up there. I think we’ve gotten a little more recognition the past few years.

“I don’t think these kids are affected much by pressure. They’re goofy, just a different breed. It’s one of those things where they’re going to be goofy no matter how focused they are.”

Westerville Central is looking to rise up as well. This is the Warhawks’ first state berth … they had never registered a regional win before this season.

This squad has been heavily eyed by college coaches. Commits include junior pitcher Emily Ruck (Ohio State), senior pitcher/first baseman Sydney Stepp (Bowling Green), junior outfielder Cami Compson (Wright State), senior outfielder Avrey Schumacher (Youngstown State), senior utility player Tiffany Zuelzke (Capital) and senior catcher Lily Linke (Defiance).

Tenth-year Westerville coach Brian Wamsley said his team has been on a mission since losing to Teays Valley in last year’s regional semifinals.

“The minute we lost that game, the mentality of this team was to get back to work and avenge that loss and prove that we belong in this regional tournament,” Wamsley said. “Our goal is always to win the last game of the year. We’re hoping that finally getting through the regional means great things from here on out.”

The Warhawks are Ohio Capital Conference Buckeye Division champions and have 13 run-rule victories this year.

Ruck is 21-0 with a 0.83 earned run average and has 223 strikeouts in 100-plus innings. A bicep injury has kept fellow right-hander Stepp, last year’s ace, out of the circle all season, though Wamsley said she will finally be available to pitch in Akron.

“With the injury to Sydney, Emily has been a blessing to us all year,” Wamsley said. “She throws in the low to mid 60s. She’s got good movement on the ball as well.”

Compson is Westerville’s home-run and RBI leader, and Schumacher had game-winning hits in the regional triumphs over Grove City and Mount Vernon.

“I’d say we’re a strong hitting team,” Wamsley said. “We can certainly play the small game when we need to, and we’ve had to go to that a couple times in these regional games, but we hit the ball pretty well. We don’t strike out often.”

Senior Sydney Larson (21-1, 0.67 ERA, 190 strikeouts in 136 innings) is East’s top hurler. Asked how hard she throws, Larson said she has “zero clue.”

Howard and Castner said they’ve never seen a radar reading on Larson’s speed, though they estimate she’s regularly in the high 50s.

“We value Sydney for her ability to move the ball,” Howard said. “Her movement is what we get good strikeouts on.”

The Thunderhawks have a .446 team batting average. Of the nine players who swing the bat on a consistent basis, only one (junior center fielder Kylee West) is below .400, and she’s hitting .367 with 19 RBIs and 15 stolen bases.

Junior third baseman Cassidy Hudson (.525, 33 RBIs, 15 steals), Larson (.482, 28 RBIs), junior catcher Abby Niehaus (.476, 39 RBIs), Hoffman (.468, 26 RBIs) and junior second baseman Abby Beckham (.447, 34 RBIs) are among East’s top hitters.

“I think you probably couldn’t find two teams that mirror each other any more than Lakota East and Westerville Central,” Wamsley said. “On paper, it looks like it should be one heck of a game.”

Hoffman is hoping for a strong finish after going 1-for-6 in the regional wins over Mason and Lakota West.

She’s been the Thunderhawks’ designated player the last two years and said she’s been “enjoying it more than I thought I would.”

“Sometimes it’s hard,” Hoffman said. “I’m very much a perfectionist. If I don’t get a hit, I’m very upset, and I kind of let that get to me last year. This year, I’m kind of like, who cares? If I don’t get a hit, someone else is going to get a hit. That’s the way our whole lineup’s been all year.”

She’s played a little bit of first base this season, but her job pretty much centers on the bat in her hands.

Hoffman said the importance of the state tournament is heightened in her situation because she won’t be playing in college.

She’s got one summer left with the Cincinnati Reds RBI team, then it’s on to the University of Cincinnati to study biomedical engineering. Hoffman got to play in the RBI World Series in Minneapolis last summer and is hoping for one more World Series trip this year.

“I guess you could call this my last tour in softball,” she said. “I’ve traveled literally every summer since I was 10. I just want to savor everything one more time. And now I’m going to state, which is crazy. I’m trying to go out with a bang everywhere.”

Friday’s game

What: Division I state softball semifinal, Lakota East (29-1) vs. Westerville Central (28-2), 10 a.m.

Where: Firestone Stadium, 1575 Firestone Parkway, Akron

Next: Winner plays either Louisville or Elyria for the state championship Saturday at 4 p.m.

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