‘How far we came this year is incredible’ — Fairfield’s historic season ends in state semifinal loss

AKRON — Brenda Stieger tipped a cap to her Fairfield High School softball players for giving the program a ride that hadn’t happened in over three decades.

“You work a lot of years with these kids, and it’s such a special team,” Stieger said. “That’s the hardest part is to say goodbye to them at the end of the season — especially these seniors that have played with me for four years and accomplished so much.”

Sydnie Watts threw a perfect game against the Indians, who saw their season come to an end with a 10-0 decision to the defending champion and fourth-ranked Austintown-Fitch Falcons in the Division I state semifinals on Saturday afternoon at Akron’s Firestone Stadium.

“That was tough,” Stieger said. “They’re a very good team obviously. They have the experience here, and we haven’t been here in a long time. We have a lot of experienced kids, but nothing like this platform that we’ve come up to today.”

Fairfield finished the season at 23-4, reaching the state tournament for the first time in 33 years. Fairfield fell to Akron Springfield 8-1 in the semifinals in 1991.

The Indians graduate seniors Abby Leugers, Jillian Huey, Leanna Lawson, Izzy Saylor, Karley Clark and Abby Stanfield.

“Being here with the girls that I’ve played with, some of them for 10 years, was just heartwarming and a special experience,” Huey said. “I think getting to state was for the seniors. I told the underclassmen, when we won our last game, that this was the best senior gift they could have given us.”

“Senior year, haven’t gone to state in 33 years is something that is unimaginable,” Stanfield chimed in. “Leaving these girls behind is going to be tough, especially with the girls that I’ve played with for four years. It’s going to be so hard leaving these girls. The milestone and how far we came this year is incredible. I’m so proud of all of them, every single one of them.”

The Falcons (22-1) move on to face No. 2 Pataskala Watkins Memorial (31-1), which beat No. 3 Whitehouse Anthony Wayne 2-0 in the other semifinal. The state title game is set for 6:15 p.m. on Saturday.

Austintown-Fitch beat Anthony Wayne 6-1 in the state final last year.

“Experience helps, obviously with (Austintown-Fitch), but you can’t take anything away from (Watts),” Stieger said. “She pitched a great game. We didn’t get enough chances at her. It would have been nice to get those last at-bats, too, in the next innings. Just a great solid team.

“She called her own game,” Stieger added of Watts. “Her deciding everything on her own, that’s impressive. She handled everything real well. She made some great plays, too, defensively. She moved well off the mound. So that makes her even tougher. We did get a bat on her. She’s just a great player.”

Fairfield couldn’t get anything going on offense against the junior pitcher who is committed to Georgia Tech. Watts has logged six perfect games and 17 no-hitters in her career.

Austintown-Fitch (22-1) put its first run on the board when Abygale Toth doubled to score Kaliana Ray.

The Falcons broke things open in the bottom of the fourth with a nine-run scoring spree that was highlighted by a Watts three-run homer.

“It was really hard, but I think as a team, we really come together,” Huey said. “We kind of said, ‘Let’s shake it off. Move on to the next play.’ Of course, it’s in the back of our minds, and we have to learn from that and realize that we can’t do that again.”

“I think it also helped how some of our wins in the past couple of weeks have been comeback wins,” junior Ava Hensley added. “So, we just always really have faith in our team and that we can come back on top.”

“We just do our best to never give up, no matter the outcome of the game, no matter how many runs we’re down by,” Stanfield continued. “We’re just always good at never giving up.”

Fairfield junior Megan Spence finished her season with a 14-4 record inside the circle. She had a Greater Miami Conference-best 1.40 ERA, tied for the most wins in the conference and logged 143 strikeouts.

“We grinded in the tournament run,” Stieger said. “We were down a lot in a lot of games. That’s what we talked about in one of the huddles. This is what we’ve battled back from before. We were comfortable in that situation until it got a little out of hand. They believe in themselves, and that makes a huge difference. … We never felt like we were down too far. Sometimes the other team has a better day, and that was today with them.

“We have nothing to be ashamed of,” Stieger added. “We certainly wished that it wouldn’t have gotten out of hand there. They did all that with two outs. So, hats off to them. But that’s exactly what we’ve done to other teams with two outs so many times this year. It just wasn’t our day today.”

Stieger, who wrapped up her 27th season at Fairfield, said she thanked the team for giving her the opportunity to compete in the state tournament.

“It’s been a while, and it was a milestone that I really wanted to accomplish to get this program back here. These kids did it. They made it happen for me, and I couldn’t be more appreciative of them and all their hard work.”

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