AKRON — The clock has not yet struck midnight on Indian Lake’s Cinderella season.
The Lakers softball team is still dancing, and is one win away from the first state championship in school history following a 3-0 win Thursday over Johnstown in a semi-final contest.
Indian Lake is 28-3 and plays for a Division III state championship at 10 a.m. Saturday against 2021 state champion Wheelersurg at Akron’s historic Firestone Stadium.
“This has been a culmination of the hard work this team has put in since the beginning of the season,” Lakers head coach John Stahl said after the game. “We’re playing our best ball all year at the right time here in this tournament.”
The Lakers got on the board in the sixth innning, breaking a scoreless tie to plate three runs and go ahead for good.
Madison Brentlinger spun her third consecutive shutout of the tournament to earn the win, allowing just three hits and striking out five.
Katie Roby helped spark the Lakers offensively, collecting two of the Lakers’ five hits on the day. Mackenzie Dixon and Brentlinger delivered the game’s biggest hits on consecutive at-bats with back-to-back to base hits to plate Indian Lake’s runs.
The sixth inning indeed proved decisive, but one of the most consequential moments of that inning did not involve a ball in play, but an injury to one of Johnstown’s most important players.
Johnnies standout pitcher Macy Walters, who is committed to play Division I softball next season at Akron University, left Thursday’s game one pitch into the sixth inning following a non-contact injury sustained to her knee. Walters, who was 16-2 for Johnstown this season with a 1.03 ERA, was perfect through the front five on Thursday, striking out six.
“It’s really unfortunate what happened to (Walters),” Stahl said after the game. “You hate to see that happen to a player anytime.”
Daktoa Steffan came on in relief for Johnstown and battled, but could not keep the Lakers off the board.
Roby delivered Indian Lake’s first hit of the game with one out in the sixth inning. She was retired on a fielder’s choice off the bat of Reece Martin. Martin stole second, and leadoff batter Haylee Edwards walked to set up Dixon’s game-changing at-bat.
After fouling off several pitches to stay alive in a two-strike count, Dixon delivered a single up the middle to plate Martin, who slid into home head-first. At first base, Dixon pumped her arms and stomped her foot emphatically on the bag, overflowing with emotion following her extended at-bat.
“I’m not usually nervous during games or when I’m up to bat, but I was nervous there” Dixon acknowledged after the game. “I just knew I had to put something in play and so I kept fouling off pitches and I knew the rest of the team had my back no matter what.”
Brentlinger followed with a two-run, standup triple into the right field corner, scoring Edwards and pinch-runner Annie Rapp to make the score 3-0. A fine display of hitting, Brentlinger stayed back and inside a ball up and away from her, going with the pitch and shooting it down the right field line.
“That pitch was high and away from me, just like I like them,” Brentlinger said of her two-RBI three-bagger. “Their pitcher was pitching me inside and I finally got one high and away, which is my favorite pitch to hit.”
“When (Brentlinger) got to third after that triple, I looked at her and said ‘high and outside’ and she was like, ‘yep'” Stahl said.
Brentlinger and the rest of the Lakers defense made the lead stand up, as Johnstown did not get a runner past first base in the sixth or seventh innings.
The Lakers dodged some trouble early, and took advantage of their opportunities late to secure the win. It ended with a celebration for the Lakers on Thursday but started shaky as a pair of fielding errors put runners on first and second base with no one out for Johnstown in the bottom of the first inning.
Brentlinger was able to dance around the trouble, however, striking out Steffan and inducing a pair of flyouts to end the threat.
“I just went out there and told them, ‘OK, we got that out of our system, and now we can settle down and go play ball,'” Stahl said.
Maneuvering out of trouble was a common theme for the Lakers defensively through the front three, as the Johnnies put runners on base in each of the first three innings of the ballgame. Johnstown also had a runner on third with two outs in the bottom of the fifth inning, following a two-out triple that at the time whipped the Johnnies faithful in attendance into a frenzy.
The Lakers, as they have all season, did not buckle, and were able to get the final out of the inning to quell the threat.
Following the two errors in the first inning, the Lakers played clean defense the rest of the way, which is especially important for a pitcher like Brentlinger, who relies on generating soft contact and is not a particularly dominant pitcher from a strikeout perspective, her coach said.
“I trusted my defense and I knew we’d be OK,” Brentlinger said. “I’m not really a pitcher that depends on striking batters out, so I just trust my defense and I knew they’d make the plays behind me,” Brentlinger said.
The Lakers have not allowed a run in 22 innings, spanning three-plus games, and have outscored their opponents 53-2 during this historic tournament run that has seen Indian Lake knock off two Division I college-bound pitchers.
Stahl said he could tell in April following wins over state-ranked opponents North Union and Jonathan Alder this team had the potential to be special.
“They have bought in from the beginning and have just kept winning,” he said.
For virtually every high school softball team in the state, the last game of the season is a loss. With Thursday’s win, Indian Lake has a chance for its last game of the season to be a championship.