AKRON, Ohio — Lakota West softball coach Keith Castner took a few steps away from the dugout early Thursday night and reminded his defense to calm down. After all, there were six innings still to be played. But in the moment, the stress was palpable.
North Canton Hoover scored five runs in the bottom of the first and had all the momentum and the crowd noise early in the Division I state semifinal at Firestone Stadium.
Circumstances didn't appear to be favorable for the Firebirds after making a long bus ride to Northeast Ohio on Wednesday afternoon. Yet Lakota West never lost its confidence. The poise and maturity of this team didn't waver.
"Even though they scored five in the first we were ready to go," Lakota West senior pitcher KK Mathis said. "We were really preaching to ourselves one out at a time. That's the only way you are going to make it in this game in such a big setting in this experience and in this type of atmosphere."
Lakota West took that message to heart and rallied in a significant way for a 13-5 win that left the Firebirds' coaching staff and players emotional on the field after the game.
"It was a huge game," Lakota West senior catcher Kendall Forren said. "All the seniors have worked all four years literally for this day. We all came together. We faced some adversity. Like I knew we would we came back. I'm just so proud of everyone and I'm so happy that we could do that. That was like the best moment ever. That was just amazing."
The Firebirds scored four runs each in the fourth and fifth innings and added three more in the sixth en route to victory and for an opportunity of a lifetime Saturday afternoon.
"No matter the outcome we've got to leave it on the field," Mathis said. "And I truly believe we left it out here today."
Lakota West (27-4), winners of 15 consecutive games, advances to play Holland Springfield (25-6) in the Division I state final at 1 p.m. Saturday at Firestone Stadium in Akron.
Lakota West is seeking its first state softball championship in its sixth state Final Four appearance as a program.
The team hopes to also rewrite the recent history for Greater Cincinnati teams in the state tournament. The only Greater Cincinnati team to win a large-school division softball state title is Hamilton who won the Class AAA state title in 1985.
"It's our turn," Castner said. "It's Southwest's turn. And I hope we can do it on Saturday. Very, very proud of our girls. We beat a very good team there. They scored five on us there the first inning. And I tell you what. We blocked it out and we started playing ball. We started hitting the ball. We started playing better defense. I'm just so proud of them."
The Firebirds trimmed the Vikings' lead to 5-2 in the second inning after senior Molly Grace's two-out double down the left field line scored junior Tionna Bright.
Later, senior Belle Hummel's RBI single scored senior Lena Albright and helped the Firebirds' rally in the fourth inning. Mathis drove in two runs with an RBI single to right center field that tied the game. Grace scored on a fielder's choice to give Lakota West a 6-5 advantage.
Senior Kendall Forren's single to center field scored two runs to give Lakota West an 8-5 lead in the fifth inning. Senior Haley Hibbard's RBI single to right made it 9-5. Senior Lily Volmer added another RBI single.
In the sixth inning, Grace had a two-out double and later scored when Mathis hit a double to right-center that scored two runs. Forren's RBI single to left made it 13-5.
Grace went 3-for-4 with two doubles and an RBI. Mathis was 2-for-3 with four RBI and three runs scored. Forren was 3-for-5 with four RBI. Hibbard was 2-for-4 with an RBI. Bright scored four runs.
Mathis allowed just four hits after the first inning and improved to 21-3 as a pitcher.
Every player had a contributing role Thursday night during the rally.
The Firebirds want that momentum to continue for a final opportunity together for a state championship Saturday afternoon.
"Everyone on this team is so happy right now," said Forren. "We love this. We're so happy to play one last game together. The fact that we are able to be together one more game is the happiest thing for me and I'm just so proud of everyone."