Together Forever!!! Lady Leopards State Champions!!!
Louisville 14, Lakota East 10
The Louisville Leopards Softball Team overcame seemingly relentless adversity in a 14-10 DI State Championship victory over the Lakota East Thunderhawks at Akron Firestone Stadium. The 10 inning contest started Saturday, was suspended due to weather, and concluded on Sunday. The State Championship is the first in program history and just the second team state title in the history of athletics at Louisville High School (Boys Cross Country in 2010 being the other). The Leopards also improved to 27-4 to further cement their new single season team record for wins.
Justina Sirohman finished 3-for-6 with a solo homer and 5 runs batted in to lead Louisville on offense. Down to their final strike, Sirohman hit a game-tying 3-run double with two outs in the top of the seventh to keep the Leopards alive and force extra innings with the score knotted up at 9-9.
“I was just thinking this is like any other at-bat see ball, hit ball,” Sirohman recalled her approach to the plate with the season on the line. “I knew when I got a 3-2 count I was looking for something over the plate.” She found her pitch and hammered it to deep center field. The ball one-hopped the wall and all three LHS runners moving on the play scored easily.
Close Call In Extra Innings
Louisville had scored a run in every inning since the second up to that point, but failed to push across a run in the top of the eighth. Thunderhawks designated hitter Cali Hoffman nearly ended the game in the bottom of the eighth. Sunday action resumed earlier with Hoffman hitting a heart-wrenching 2-run homer to center field that gave Lakota East a 9-6 advantage. Again with a runner on and two outs, Hoffman ripped a hard hit line drive to deep left field. Abby Niehaus was running on the pitch from first and was poised to score the championship run if the ball found anything but a Leopard glove. Drifting back slowly, Sirohman made the grab at the warning track while her momentum carried her into the left field fence. Center fielder Lexi Zavarelle quickly congratulated and embraced her as the girls in blue sprinted back to the dugout to start the ninth.
Leopards Pitcher Sarah Cantley had battled eight hard innings in the circle to that point. Unbeknownst to the first 30 games of the season, an unprecedented tight strike zone was called throughout the contest making strikeouts a rarity and pitcher frustration a commonality. In addition, nerves struck the Louisville defense hard from the get go and they committed 4 errors in the first two innings which led to most of the Thunderhawks 7 runs.
The Leopards scratched and clawed all game to get back to an even contest and any frustration that built inside the normally unfazed Cantley was released on the first pitch of the ninth inning. Cantley crushed the ball well beyond the right center field fence to give LHS their first lead at 10-9. The dinger was Louisville’s fourth of the game, Cantley’s fifth of the season, and the team’s record 38th of the year.
Needing just three outs to clinch a championship, the Leopards surrendered the lead and nearly their season in the bottom of the ninth. Hailey Holtman tripled home Kylee West to tie the game at 10-10 with just one out. With the winning run at third, Louisville got out of the jam with a pop out to first baseman Alex Fankhauser and a groundout to shortstop Teagan Rice.
Leopards Bats Erupt in the 10th
The LHS cats had exhausted all nine of their lives and they came out scratching in the top of the tenth. Zavarelle singled to start the frame, advanced to second on a wild pitch, and then to third on a sacrifice by Sydney McKeever. She then came home when Rice smacked a sacrifice fly to center field to put Louisville in front 11-10.
The Lady Leopards had gone ahead, but no lead seemed safe with Lakota getting last bats in the tenth. To remove all doubt, LHS added three more runs to put a crooked number up on the board. With the bases cleared and two outs, Kaycee Ollis ripped her second double of the game to center field to restart the blue and white machine. Two batters later Kaylee Nolte cracked a line drive single to center scoring Ollis. Two batters after that, Sirohman singled home courtesy runner Ashley Zifer to make it 13-10. Lauren Bennett followed and drew a bases loaded walk to give LHS a four run cushion.
The inning may have continued awhile longer, but Zavarelle was called out on a bang-bang play at first. The call stood even after a plethora of booing from the Leopard faithful and a conference between the umpires. Either way Louisville needed just three outs to claim the ultimate prize.
Sydney Larson singled on a line drive to center field to begin the last of the tenth for the Thunderhawks, but became the first out on a 4-6 McKeever to Rice fielder’s choice three pitches later. The same combination in reverse (Rice to McKeever) on another fielder’s choice produced the second out of the inning and Leopard Nation rose to its feet awaiting the final out.
Then it came. It came without the need for a golden glove stop or even a suspenseful fly ball hanging in the Akron air. An entire game filled with overcoming adversity ended with a soft, slow rolling ground ball to first base. Fankhauser scooped it up, stepped on the bag, and completed the Lady Leopards quest. Ollis embraced Cantley midway between home plate and the pitching rubber. The other players sprinted in behind and Head Coach Andrea Arney jumped in to join the celebration after that. Like a dam bursting, Louisville fans filed in from beyond the fence on the first base side. The massive huddle quickly became a dog pile as mass pandemonium ensued for the next minute or so. When the dust cleared, the Lady Leopards each received their championship medals and together hoisted the Division I State Championship Trophy presented to them by Athletic Director Terrie Horn.
Together for a State Championship
On this day, the Leopards truly worked together to produce the first state title in the history of girls athletics at Louisville. All 13 players played in the championship game and all 13 were baserunners. Nine different Leopards batters recorded hits in the game, nine different players scored, and eight different hitters drove in runs.
Together Louisville pounded out 18 hits and scored 14 runs, both of which are Division I State Tournament records. Prior to Division I, Cuyahoga Falls blanked Ameila 14-0 in the 1980 AAA State Final and Akron Springfield recorded 19 hits in the 1989 AAA Semifinals against Bay Village Bay.
Adversity from the Start
The cards certainly seemed stacked against the Leopards from the start. Louisville went down 1-2-3 on three straight pop outs to start the game. Then Cantley was called for an illegal pitch on her very first delivery to home plate. On top of that, she wasn’t getting any calls on the corner of he plate where she has worked her magic all season long.
With the shrunken strikezone, the Thunderhawks were able to make solid contact off Cantley which snowballed into hits and 4 Leopards errors in the field in two innings. Lakota East scored 3 in the first and added 4 more in the second to take a 7-2 advantage.
Chipping Away and Rallying Back
It certainly was disheartening as a Louisville fan to start off the State Championship game in a 3-0 hole. For the most loyal in Leopard Nation, it may have produced flashbacks to the 2007 Division II Football State Championship against Andersen, another Cincinnati team that jumped out to a two touchdown 14-0 lead less than five minutes into the contest.
Cantley doubled to start the second inning. Then Fankhauser powered a 1-1 pitch over the left field fence for a 2-run homer to put Louisville back in the game at 3-2.
The Thunderhawks answered with four more runs in the bottom half of the second to take a commanding 7-2 lead. The damage would have been greater, but the Leopards caught their first break of the contest ironically on a superb defensive play that followed their four errors. Zavarelle made a diving grab in shallow left center field and the runner at third failed to tag up. She fired to Bennett who pressed the ball against the bag for the double play. Bennett emphatically spiked the ball against the dirt to fire up her teammates.
“We were down and I knew if the ball was coming to me I had to help out Sarah. She’s been pitching a heck of a game,” Zavarelle explained her motivation on defense. “Some of the plays weren’t going as we wished for. I had to do what had to be done for her.”
Louisville appeared to be in the process of a breakout inning when the top of the lineup produced three straight 1-out singles in the third. Ollis singled on a hard ground ball to left that scored McKeever from third. Rice came rolling in behind her but was called out by homeplate umpire Mike Burwell. Video replay after the fact showed no evidence of Rice being tagged on her way to the plate. Nevertheless it proved to be a rally killer for he Leopards who would not produce another run in the frame.
Louisville got one run closer in the fourth when Sirohoman hit her first home run of the season over the left field fence. Then in the fifth, Cantley helped her own cause with a 1-out single that plated McKeever to cut the deficit to 7-5.
Louisville Momentum and Weather Delays
The errors that plagued the Leopards at the start seemed like a distant memory after the fifth inning. Zavarelle laid out and snow coned a blooper in left center for out number one. Later with a runner on second and two outs, a blooper to shallow left spelled trouble for Louisville. Out of her shortstop position, Rice turned, leaped, and stretched to snag what would have been a sure base hit and save a potential critical run.
The Leopards had all the momentum after those two golden glove worthy plays in the field. In the top of the sixth, Arney sent Shae Thomas in to pinch hit with 1 out. Thomas did not play in the Semifinal against Elyria and had not produced a hit since cracking a pair of homers in the Sectional Final against Akron Ellet three and a half weeks before. As she stepped up to the batter’s box she found out that she would have to wait a little longer to break out of her slump.
The game was suspended jus before 6:00 PM and put into a weather delay for over 2 1/2 hours. When the game resumed around 8:30 PM the lights in Firestone Stadium were on potentially making it the first game under the lights in Lady Leopards Softball history (according to Leopard Nation records).
Out of the delay, Thomas remained patient taking the first two pitches to work the count to 1-1. Then she found her pitch and blasted it over the left center field wall for her fourth home run of the season.
“As soon as I hit it I knew it was gone. As soon as I rounded first base I just felt so much emotion, I started crying,” Thomas recalls her solo shot that got Louisville to within a run at 7-6. “Everyone had my back and I knew that and I came in clutch for everyone.”
Four more outs were played and then with two outs in the bottom of the sixth thunder rolled into Akron. Eventually the heavens opened up and lightning surged throughout the sky. Officials moved the game to Sunday and eventually to 1:00 PM.
Day 2 Begins
The two teams returned to the diamond Sunday Afternoon following the DIV State Championship game. The Leopards had scored in each of the past five innings and needed just to continue that trend with a single run to tie things back up in the top of the seventh.
The problem was the sixth inning wasn’t finished yet for Lakota East. Play resumed and Niehaus singled to center field. Then Hoffman followed with a spirit crushing 2-run home run to center to bust open 9-6 lead for the Thunderhawks. The next two East players reached base and it looked like Louisville’s nightmarish start from Saturday had crept its way into the start of Sunday’s contest.
Then momentum turned back into the Leopards favor. Just like in the Solon Regional Championship Game, Ollis threw down to second from her knees to pick off the runner at second. McKeever’s tag applied the third out and the inning ended.
Never Say Die Seventh
The Thunderhawks needed just three outs to win the first big school state title for a Cincinnati area softball team since 1985. They got the first on one pitch when Rice flied out to left field. Ollis doubled to right center in the next at-bat. But Cantley lined out to left which left the Leopards with just one life remaining.
Coach Arney pinch hit Lauren Stillwagon for Nolte, but the two switched back after Stillwagon was hit by a pitch. Fankhauser followed and walked on five pitches to load the bases and set up the defining moment of the game and quite frankly the Lady Leopards Softball Program. Sirohman patiently awaited her pitch watching the count run to 2-0 before taking a strike. She fouled off the next pitch and all of the sudden Louisville was down to their last strike, but it really didn’t feel like it. There was such a sense of confidence throughout the stadium that the never say die Leopards were going to make one more rally to keep their season alive.
Hearts stopped as Sirohman took ball three that was very close to nicking the inside corner of the plate. Could there be a more storybook scenario than bases loaded, 2 out, and a full count in the seventh inning? No fear and total confidence was Sirohman’s approach in the high-pressure situation. When prompted in the post game press conference on her thought process at that moment she simply replied, “I’m going to hit something hard here.”
After one more foul ball. Sirohman hammered a line drive past the center fielder all the way to the wall. Ollis scored, Nolte scored, and Fankhauser bolted around third to score the tying run to an overjoyed Leopard crowd. The comeback from 7-2 was complete, they had tied the game at 9-9. There was no way Louisville was losing after that.
“As soon as that tied it up I knew we had it,” Ollis described her feelings after being the first of three runners to score off Sirohman’s double. “I knew we were going to win this game and there was no doubt in my mind that we were going to pull this out.”
VARSITY SOFTBALL BOX SCORE
LEOPARDS 14, THUNDERHAWKS 10
Lakota East 340-002-001-0–10-15-0
LOUISVILLE LEOPARDS SOFTBALL VARSITY BATTING STATS
LOUISVILLE LEOPARDS SOFTBALL VARSITY PITCHING STATS
LAKOTA EAST THUNDERHAWKS SOFTBALL VARSITY BATTING STATS
LAKOTA EAST THUNDERHAWKS SOFTBALL VARSITY PITCHING STATS
Records: Louisville 27-4, Lakota East 30-2