The Lakota West Firebirds pose for a team picture after their 11-1 loss to Massillon Perry in the Division I state championship game Saturday afternoon at Firestone Stadium in Akron. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

Too strong: Massillon Perry overpowers Lakota West to earn Division I state softball championship

Saturday was that kind of day for Lakota West High School’s senior shortstop and her teammates. They knew their softball season was going to end, but they never envisioned anything like this.

The Firebirds got overwhelmed and run-ruled by Massillon Perry in the Division I state championship game, taking an 11-1, five-inning defeat before a large crowd at Firestone Stadium.

» PHOTOS: Nick Graham’s gallery from Firestone Stadium

» STATE SEMIFINAL: Lakota West 2, Perrysburg 1

“Absolutely unforgettable,” said Cummins, unquestionably one of the best players to ever put on a West uniform. “I wouldn’t change anything for the world.”

Cummins doubled, singled and drove in a run in her final appearance as a Firebird, adding to a career that includes most of the program’s offensive records.

It was also the end of the line for fellow seniors Lauren Betz, Stephanie Maldonado and Claire Dietz as West completed a 26-4 campaign.

“I get emotional talking about these girls,” Firebirds coach Keith Castner said. “The hardest thing is when I see seniors leave, but I have to remember that we’re two of the best teams in the state of Ohio in Division I. Out of 187 teams, we’re the top two teams.

Massillon Perry High School’s Payton Gottshall gets a game-ending strikeout of Lakota West’s Stephanie Maldonado on Saturday afternoon at Firestone Stadium in Akron. Perry earned the Division I state title with an 11-1 victory.

“We want to be No. 1, but I’m very, very proud of them. I’m not just proud of what we did on the softball field. These young ladies, their GPAs, how they treat people off the field and how they treat each other and how they treat their moms and dads, that’s what makes me even prouder than I am as a softball coach.”

Cummins, who’s looking for a collegiate home after asking to be released from the national letter of intent she signed with the University of Akron, said her time at West was special.

“For the past four years, one of my biggest goals has not only been my individual goals, but goals as a team,” Cummins said. “I think one thing we really showed that we could do was overcome adversity. In practice when things weren’t going our way and in games when things weren’t going our way, we always changed our attitude, whether it took a drink or Castner yelling at us.

“It was whatever it took, and we always bounced back and we always overcame everything that came our way. So I hope that next year and the years to come they’re able to get further than we did this year and finish it off with a win. I hope nothing but the best for them in the future.”

Lakota West's Allie Cummins slides safely into second base before a tag by Massillon Perry's Rylee Pireu during Saturday’s Division I state final at Firestone Stadium in Akron. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

The Firebirds, winless in three previous trips to the Final Four, seemed poised to make a serious bid for the championship after knocking off Perrysburg 2-1 in eight innings Thursday.

Perry, though, had other ideas.

The Panthers (25-5) banged out 15 hits and scored all of their runs in the first four innings to support Payton Gottshall, who pitched a four-hitter with seven strikeouts.

“They found a way to hit every pitch,” Castner said. “We saw them the other day and they really hit the ball very well, and they came today and hit the ball just like they did the other day. (Gottshall) hit the corners and found her spots. She’s a very good pitcher, and that’s a very good team over there. They’re state champions, and they deserve it.”

Maldonado lasted 2.2 innings in the circle for West, allowing 10 hits and nine runs. Jenna Harris pitched the rest of the game.

Lakota West reliever Jenna Harris delivers a pitch during Saturday’s Division I state final against Massillon Perry at Firestone Stadium in Akron. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Castner didn’t want to relieve his senior ace, but it was obvious that Perry had her number.

The Panthers scored twice in the top of the first, and after the Firebirds chopped the deficit to 2-1 in the bottom of the frame, Perry put up three more runs in the second.

Gia Durieux led off the second with a solo home run. Sunshine Armstrong added a two-run double that Panthers coach Scott Daugherty felt was “a tipping point” in the contest.

Armstrong was 3-for-4 with four RBIs for Perry, and Missy Holzopfel was 3-for-3 with a double and two RBIs. Riley Lesh, Rylee Pireu and Durieux all had two hits and drove in a run, and Maddie Snyder and Maddie Johnston added RBIs.

The Panthers, who won their only other state championship in 2010 and have made four Final Four appearances, had a remarkable tournament run. They outscored their seven opponents 71-4.

Lakota West High School coach Keith Castner reflects on the 2018 season Saturday after the Firebirds lost 11-1 to Massillon Perry in the Division I state final at Firestone Stadium in Akron.

“It’s a little bit mind-boggling, to be honest with you,” Daugherty said. “We’ve been grinding for weeks now, and I know on the outside all of this looked really easy, but it just hasn’t really felt that way to me. We were just able to relax and really put ourselves in position to play our best ball when it mattered most.

“When you’re around your kids every day, sometimes you don’t notice how much they’ve grown, and then a relative sees them once every six months and they see how they’ve really sprouted. It took me a while to realize how much we had grown. I started kind of digesting things throughout the run, and I could really see that growth in them.”

The home run by Durieux was a big moment. Perry’s No. 7 hitter came to Akron with three homers this season, then set a state tournament record by thrice going deep in Thursday’s 12-3 semifinal win over Ashville Teays Valley.

“It’s unreal,” said Durieux, a junior catcher. “I’ve got nothing. I’m speechless. I just went out there and did my things and stayed relaxed and watched the results.”

The Massillon Perry Panthers pose with their victory drinks Saturday after beating Lakota West 11-1 to win the Division I state championship at Firestone Stadium in Akron. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

She took a not-so-great Maldonado pitch and sent it over the left-field fence as Daugherty watched from the third-base coaching box.

“I could hear their coaches in the dugout,” he said. “It was kind of a crazy pitch she hit out. It was up over her head, it might have been outside, and we see that all the time out of Gia. We just kind of laugh like she never met a pitch she didn’t like. Their coaches were just kind of like 1, shaking their heads and 2, just couldn’t believe she hit that pitch out. You could kind of hear it through their dugout like, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to throw to her?’ They didn’t seem to have any answers.”

The Panthers scored their first run of the game when Armstrong’s single plated Snyder. Betz made a strong throw toward home plate from center field, but Maldonado cut it off.

“They were going to make a play on her, and they never made the attempt,” Daugherty said. “You start to see that sometimes players don’t want to make a mistake, and we’ve just preached all year don’t be afraid to make mistakes. We want to be as aggressive as possible and put pressure on the other team, and I thought we were able to do that in the top of the first inning.”

Lakota West gets the Division I state runner-up trophy Saturday after losing 11-1 to Massillon Perry at Firestone Stadium in Akron. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Gottshall improved to 17-2. The junior entered the season sharing the pitching duties with senior All-Ohioan Makenna Durieux, who suffered a knee injury in April and missed several weeks. She was Perry’s flex player/first baseman Saturday.

“Softball’s a team sport for a reason,” Durieux said of watching Gottshall become the staff ace. “I’m so happy and so proud of P for stepping up and doing what she needed to do.”

Said Gottshall, “It’s great to have teammates like that.”

Alyssa Triner and Corey Weaver had singles for West, and Triner scored her team’s lone run. The only other time the Firebirds were limited to one run this season was April 27 in an 8-1 loss to Lakota East.

Triner said West was typically loose before the game. Both teams engaged in some dancing on the field that Daugherty described as “a wedding reception.”

Lakota West first baseman Cameron Wesley gets the out on Massillon Perry's Kylie Deitrick during Saturday’s Division I state final at Firestone Stadium in Akron. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

“I think everyone was just trying to calm down their nerves,” said Triner, a junior third baseman. “I think at one point we were very calm, and then they just started hitting and they were hitting them in gaps, so we couldn’t really do much about that.”

With the Firebirds returning a sizable chunk of their lineup in 2019, sophomore second baseman Taylor Williams said getting back to Akron will be a priority.

“I’m really glad that I got to have this experience, but next year I’m really looking forward to coming back and winning it,” Williams said. “We were highly capable this year of doing it, and I believe that we can do it next year and the years to come.”

“I think this experience shows us what we’re actually going for,” Triner said. “In the previous years, we would always say that this is what we’re training for, but we never really got that experience. Now I think we all know that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and if we can do it again, we’re definitely going to train our butts off to do it.”

Lakota West coach Keith Castner has some pregame fun with Corey Weaver (4) and Cameron Wesley prior to Saturday’s Division I state final against Massillon Perry at Firestone Stadium in Akron. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Castner, the only head coach in West’s 21-year history, said the discussion about who’s the all-time best Firebird should start with Cummins and 2007 graduate Rachael Shepherd, who’s now a LWHS assistant coach.

“This girl right here means the world to us,” Castner said of Cummins. “We’re going to miss the heck out of her just like the other three seniors.”

Southwest Ohio still has yet to win a Division I state championship. The only Southwest Ohio team that captured the big-school crown was Hamilton (Class AAA) in 1985.

Perry 234-20—11-15-1

Lakota West 100-00—1-4-0

WP — Payton Gottshall (17-2); LP — Stephanie Maldonado (21-3); HR — P: Gia Durieux. Records: P 25-5, L 26-4

The Massillon Perry Panthers accept the Division I state championship trophy from the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s Tim Stried after defeating Lakota West 11-1 on Saturday afternoon at Firestone Stadium in Akron. RICK CASSANO/STAFF
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