If experience is a plus when it comes to trying to win a state championship, then the Keystone Wildcats have a giant plus.
Not only have Autumn Acord, Sydney Campbell, Shelby Fortune and Ali Pyles played in the Division II state tournament before, they have played in it every year during their high school careers.
“Those four work extremely hard and it’s an elite group because I think we’ve only had four sets of graduating classes who’ve gone (to state) all four years,” Keystone coach Jim Piazza said. “That says a lot right there.”
The foursome will lead Keystone into tonight’s Division II state semifinal against Hebron Lakewood at Firestone Stadium in Akron.
The quartet looked much different during a 2016 state semifinal against Hamilton Ross.
“Ali towards the end (of that season) was used as a courtesy runner, but early in the year she was going to be a bigger part but she broke her hand during our spring trip, so the only thing she could do with a cast on her hand was run,” Piazza said. “Shelby was our utility, she could play infield and she could play outfield, so if we wanted to give a kid a break we were able to plug Shelby in any of those positions. Autumn ended up winning the left-field job that year. Syd was a replacement for Lauren (Shaw), but in the state championship game that year she ended up coming in and shutting down Hebron Lakewood when they scored those runs.
“They all got that experience that year and we kept telling them as freshmen, ‘The rest of your career is going to be easy.’ Those were tough spots to be put in.”
Acord, who has been the catcher the past three seasons, went 1-for-2 with two RBIs and a run scored in her state tournament debut, an 18-0 win in five innings over Hamilton Ross.
“My freshman year I played outfield, which was new for me, so I was extremely nervous, but as it went on the upperclassmen always helped make us comfortable and now it’s our turn to help calm down the underclassmen,” Acord said. “I think with how prepared we are we’re going to do really well.”
Campbell said she “was shaking on the field” when she made her state tournament debut, and Pyles and Fortune got opportunities to pinch hit and pinch run as freshmen.
The four would prefer to gloss over their sophomore state tournament — a 5-1 loss to Akron Hoban in the semifinals, where only Acord managed a hit and Campbell threw one inning of relief — and go right to last season, where they were all instrumental in helping the Wildcats win the program’s fourth state championship.
Campbell threw a two-hit shutout in a 1-0 win over Lancaster Fairfield Union in the state semifinals, then was nearly as dominating in a 3-2 win in 12 innings over Beloit West Branch in the final.
Pyles had a huge game defensively in the final, while Acord and Fortune had multiple hits.
“Winning that state championship last year made us so much more confident and calm because the pressure’s not on us anymore to try and win it,” Acord said. “Now we have to win it for ourselves and the only team that can beat us is ourselves. I think our confidence this year is really high.”
After experience comes chemistry, and the senior class has plenty of that, too.
“We’ve all been playing together since we were 7, and I think the bond that we’ve grown, we have so much love for the game and so much love for each other that it makes it a lot easier to be out there on the field because we know we have each other’s backs,” Pyles said.
“Even though we’re going off to college and playing sports, I’m sure if we see each other we’re going to be excited to see each other and want each other to do well,” Fortune added.
Keystone is riding a 62-game winning streak and attempting to become the first team in Lorain County to repeat as state champions. The Wildcats are confident they’ll get the job done, especially after several high-level wins this season. They beat Louisville and Warren Champion during the regular season, and those teams could end up being the Division I and III state champions, respectively.
“All the pressure comes in later in the postseason, but Coach P told us before the season started that this was going to be our toughest schedule ever and since we’ve been beating all these teams and we’re still on top that just gives us confidence,” Campbell said. “It’s very surreal. At graduation (last week) we just opened our eighth-grade letters and my eighth-grade letter said, ‘I want to win a state championship.’ So achieving that goal was one thing, but getting to go again and hopefully winning a second one, you can’t put it into words. It’s such an amazing feeling to be able to do this with my teammates, my sisters, my family.”
It’s obvious the Wildcats are hungry for the repeat, but first they have to win tonight’s state semifinal. There’s plenty of motivation there, too.
“Since we didn’t win state freshman and sophomore year, we want revenge on Hebron Lakewood,” Fortune said.