DEERFIELD TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- Lebanon’s softball team is headed back to the state tournament for the first time since 2015.
After snatching a win from the jaws of defeat in a Division I regional semifinal against Lakota West and outlasting a Saturday weather postponement in Centerville, the Warriors (29-3) defeated Mason 7-3 in Sunday’s regional championship at Kings High School and clinched a place in the Final Four in Akron.
Brian Kindell’s team will take a 14-game winning streak and the state’s No. 1 ranking to Firestone Stadium. The Warriors face sixth-ranked North Canton Hoover (19-9) at 12:30 p.m. Thursday for a place in the state championship game.
That’s exactly where Lebanon finished the 2015 season – in the state final – but it lost to Teays Valley in a 1-0, eight-inning heartbreaker. Since the Warriors bowed out relatively early in the 2016 postseason, Sunday’s victory cemented a long-awaited return to state.
“Oh my gosh, it was so exciting,” senior pitcher Alexis Strother said after the final out. “We’ve been waiting for this all year. It’s exactly what we wanted to happen.”
Mason or Lebanon has reached the state semifinals every year since 2012 – the Comets advanced as recently as last season – so their regional match-ups have become a fixture on the tournament calendar.
The rivals also had a regular-season meeting this year. Mason (26-4), ranked fourth in the state, lost to Lebanon 2-0 in the third game on the calendar. Then, after twice falling to Hebron Lakewood, Liann Muff’s team rattled off an 18-0 record in the Greater Miami Conference and won 20 straight games.
The Comets didn’t allow a single postseason run until facing Lebanon.
Although Mason jumped to a 1-0 lead, Warriors player Ashley West doubled to left field and scored on a Grace Gressly RBI single in the second inning. Molly Osborne’s double plated pinch runner Emma Ball for the go-ahead run and the Warriors never relinquished control.
Gressly drove in a run in the bottom of the third after Mason hurler Elle Buffenbarger walked two batters. Osborne’s sac fly RBI made it a 5-1 outing before Buffenbarger ended the inning with a strikeout.
It was an uncharacteristic afternoon for Buffenbarger, who walked five and struck out two. Muff said the Youngstown State signee had no choice but to throw the ball down the middle of the plate, and Lebanon’s arsenal of hitters seized opportunities to connect.
“She did a lot of great things in that circle,” Kindell said of the Mason pitcher. “(But) top to bottom, we’re very dangerous. We’ve got a lot of speed. We swing the bat very, very well. We’ve got a nice combination of power and slappers and everything. It’s a very tough lineup to deal with. I tip my hat to (Buffenbarger). She’s one of the best we’ve seen all year.”
Lebanon’s Strother was solid for five innings but was replaced by Taylor Lewis after walking the leadoff batter in the sixth. Mason pinch hitter Hannah Lea promptly drove in Elana Harrison and a Lebanon throwing error allowed another Comets run to make it a 5-3 game.
Strother returned to the circle to secure the last out of the inning and finish the game.
“I thought Taylor could do it. The umpire’s strike zone – she was throwing inside and they weren’t really calling it, so I just came in and I was like, ‘I’m going to win this game for our team,’” said Strother, who will play next year at the University of Tennessee at Martin.
In an admirable show of sportsmanship, Mason’s Brooke Rice hugged Strother after hitting the ball off her foot in the top of the seventh and being thrown out.
Two outs later, the game was over. Lebanon players flung their gloves in the air, cheering and embracing, before Kindell was drenched with ice water.
Although the Mason dugout was filled with disappointment, Muff said she was immensely proud of her players as people and as teammates.
“We had two goals this year: One was to go undefeated in the GMC and they did that. And secondly, they wanted to win state. So this hurts. It’s going to hurt for a while,” Muff said. “I told them, ‘I have no magic words to say to you except for the fact that I am the proudest coach of this group of young women.’”