Prep softball: Looking back at Lakota West’s first three trips to state

Rachael Shepherd is a 2007 Lakota West High School graduate and current assistant coach for the Firebirds softball team. RICK CASSANO/STAFF
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Rachael Shepherd is a 2007 Lakota West High School graduate and current assistant coach for the Firebirds softball team. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

Rachael Shepherd would like to finally get a piece of the Division I state softball championship.

Shepherd, a 2007 Lakota West High School graduate, was part of the program’s first two state teams in 2005 and 2006, but the Firebirds lost to Uniontown Lake and North Canton Hoover, respectively, in the semifinals.

She’s going back to the Final Four this week as an assistant coach for West, which plays Perrysburg in a state semifinal Thursday afternoon at Firestone Stadium in Akron.

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“It’ll be interesting to see Firestone Stadium and experience that on my end,” Shepherd said. “I’ve played there before in summer ball, but I’ve never been involved in a bigger game like this.”

The Firebirds’ state games in 2005 and 2006 were played at Brookside Park in Ashland. Keith Castner has been the only head coach in West history and had assistant Lindsay Amend with him for all three LWHS state appearances — the Firebirds also lost to Gahanna Lincoln in 2011.

Shepherd wasn’t around for the 2011 run, but she was front and center as West’s catcher in 2005 and 2006. She doesn’t recall being terribly nervous for those contests.

“You remember more things before the games than the actual games themselves because through the years you play so many games,” Shepherd said. “I remember Castner doing visualization with us and trying to make us relax. It’s a game of failure in a lot of ways, so it’s really about staying positive when you make a mistake because it is going to happen. It’s how you come back from those things and turn them around.”

She noted that West went through the Columbus regional and played at Ohio State University in 2005 and 2006 before reaching Ashland.

“Playing at a university was different and exciting for a lot of us,” Shepherd said. “The one year — I think it was my sophomore year — I think we had back-to-back home runs to win the regional title, me and Katie Kirk. That was probably one of our more memorable moments just to get to the next level.”

Shepherd went on to play at Ohio State, though her career was cut short by two shoulder surgeries. She’s been coaching at West for several years and works with the pitchers and catchers.

Now 29 years old, Shepherd does customer service and inside sales for Nergeco Entrematic, a high-speed door company.

“Going to state as a player was an amazing experience,” she said. “I wish we would’ve won it, but the things that you get to do as an athlete and as a team, it definitely brings a lot of kids closer. It also helps you understand what the next level takes. There’s kids that I met in college that never got to experience that, so it was a lot different for them.

“This team can win it all. They just have to stay positive, keep truckin’ and don’t let nerves get the best of them.”

Here’s a game-by-game look at West’s previous state appearances:

June 2, 2005

At Brookside Park, Ashland

Uniontown Lake 4, Lakota West 3

The Firebirds had a 2-0 lead but couldn’t hold it, with the Blue Streaks scoring four times in the top of the fifth inning.

Lamara Parker and Rachel Denham had RBIs for West (27-5), and Lindsay Bodeker pitched an eight-hitter with 12 strikeouts. Shepherd contributed a triple.

Julie Boyes tossed a five-hitter and struck out eight for Lake. She went on to pitch collegiately for the Akron Zips.

“We had a couple little mistakes on defense, but they were good,” Castner said. “Their pitcher was a big, tall girl that did a nice job keeping us in check.”

June 1, 2006

At Brookside Park, Ashland

North Canton Hoover 4, Lakota West 0

Jessica Simpson fired a one-hitter and struck out 11 for the Vikings, who came up with four unearned runs in the bottom of the sixth inning.

Simpson went on to become a collegiate standout at Miami. Denham had the only hit for the Firebirds, while Bodeker pitched a four-hitter with five strikeouts.

“That was pretty much the same group that went up the year before,” Shepherd said. “We were good enough to be state champions both years. We had the pitching, we had the hitting. We just needed to fix those errors.”

June 3, 2011

At Firestone Stadium, Akron

Gahanna Lincoln 9, Lakota West 6

Alex Caudill was 3-for-4 with an RBI and Madison Bridges had two hits and two RBIs for the Firebirds, who committed four errors and squandered a 6-3 lead.

Ashley Sharp added two hits, while Melanie Bryan and Bekah Werth drove in a run apiece.

Caudill went the distance in the circle for West. She gave up 11 hits and six earned runs, striking out one.

“Gahanna Lincoln had a hitting team just like we did,” Castner said. “They had a girl that went on to Miami (third baseman Tiyona Marshall) who caused some havoc against us because she was so fast and could place the ball. But we had our chances that day.”

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