‘We finally did it’ -- Lakota West reflects on program’s first state softball title

Keith Castner’s first thoughts as he watched the championship-clinching fly ball settle into the glove of senior center fielder Belle Hummel?

“We finally did it,” the long-time Lakota West softball recalled on Monday. “When she caught it, I thought, ‘Celebrate, girls. Celebrate.”

They’d earned the right. The Firebirds steamrolled through Ohio’s Division I state semifinals and finals last Thursday and Saturday at Akron’s Firestone Stadium, outscoring semifinal opponent North Canton Hoover and finals foe Holland Springfield by a combined 22-7 to capture the school’s eighth team championship since it opened in 1997. After falling behind, 5-1, in the first inning of the semifinal, they put together a 21-2 run.

Lakota West, ranked seventh in the final Division I state coaches poll, won 16 consecutive games to finish the season 28-4. The state softball championship was Butler County’s first since Ross claimed the trophy in 2009 and Southwest Ohio’s first big-school softball state title since Greater Miami Conference-mate Hamilton brought home the Class AAA trophy in 1985 – back when the Lakota district had just one high school and 12 years before it was split into two.

The magnitude hit Castner on Sunday, he said.

“I woke up every so often smiling from ear-to-ear knowing we won the state title,” said the coach, who’d guided five previous teams to the state tournament and reached the final just once. “I’d start crying with joy. Out of 186 (Division I) teams, to be the one still smiling is a great accomplishment. So many people were a part of it that I don’t know how to say thanks.”

The accomplishment still hadn’t sunk in by Monday for senior KK Mathis, the starting and winning pitcher in both games.

“It still hasn’t,” said Mathis, who went a combined 5-for-6 with six runs batted in, including a two-run homer in the first inning of the championship game that got Lakota West started on its 9-2 romp. “We had an adrenaline crash on the bus ride home. Nobody talked for an hour-and-a-half until we got close to home. I still can’t talk about it, but I still cry about it.”

Contributing to Lakota West’s outbursts were senior shortstop Molly Grace, who went 3-for-4 with two doubles in the semifinal, and senior third baseman Haley Hibbard, who went 2-for-4 in each game and drove in three runs in the final. Senior catcher Kendall Forren went 3-for-4 and drove in four runs in the semifinal.

The carnage could have been worse. The Firebirds left a combined 18 runners on base. Falling behind, 5-1, in the first inning of the semifinal only seemed to wake them up.

“That did not go as planned, but they weren’t hitting me hard,” Mathis said. “It was mostly little, dinky bloop shots just over people’s heads. The ball was moving well. We had a couple of throwing errors. Coach Castner said, ‘It’s a long game. Let’s just win the next inning and the next inning.’ Our mindset was, if they score five runs, let’s score six.

“For them to score five, everybody thought they’d already won the game. We proved them wrong. We had a different approach – a mature approach.”

The Firebirds would commit just one more error over the remaining 13 innings while producing some sparkling plays, including Grace’s heads-up tag of a baserunner to complete a double play in the second inning of the championship game.

“I have to let the defense do the work,” Mathis (22-3) said. “I don’t throw hard enough to strike everybody out. I remember Hibbard caught a screamer and threw the girl out by 10 steps. Every single player played their best.”

“It was a great day to play great defense,” Castner said. “We have a thing in practice called ‘Everydays,’ where we practice something with glovework – something defense-wise. It showed that what you do in practice pays off in games. That’s rewarding.”

The softball team hadn’t done much to celebrate the historic accomplishment, in part because many of the players had to practice with their summer teams, Mathis said. The team banquet was scheduled for Tuesday, and Castner said a local restaurant had invited the squad to a dinner next Tuesday.

For Castner, adding the state championship to reaching his 500th career win earlier this year made 2022 as memorable as possible, but he passed on the chance to even lightly gloat.

“Five hundred wins just means I’ve been around a long time,” he said. He paused and his voice caught. “I just wanted it for these girls so bad.”

“I’ve known him for a long time,” Mathis said. “Just by knowing how he coaches made it cool watching his dream come to pass. It was his dream as much as ours and our dream as much as his.”

Lakota West team state championships:

1999 – Girls soccer

2000 – Boys golf

2006 – Girls golf

2007 – Baseball

2015 – Girls basketball

2019 – Girls soccer

2020 – Boys cross country

2022 – Softball

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