LAGRANGE — The Keystone Wildcats softball team took time out for a literal parade Tuesday night during its parade of recognition after winning the Division II state championship June 2 at Firestone Stadium in Akron.
Fans lined the streets as the players, who were preceded by the city’s youth players and former state championship players, marched from Hershey’s ice cream shop to LaGrange Community Park.
The city parade is just one of many celebratory stops for the team. The players were honored before a Cleveland Indians game last week, will be given a proclamation in the statehouse today in Columbus and have been invited to be recognized at Cleveland Comets and Lake Erie Crushers games later this summer.
“The parade was definitely the second-happiest I’ve been since after winning the game,” said Madi Nunez, who shared the Miss Softball award — given annually to Lorain County’s top senior player — with Midview’s Gabby Shackelford. “This is actually so great to see the whole community supporting us, and to see the signs (held by youth players) that say ‘Future state champions’ … it was just great.”
After the parade’s completion, the players were honored with speeches by Keystone superintendent Franco Gallo, high school principal James Kohler and athletic director Gina Gibson, then were given embossed proclamations by LaGrange Mayor Kim E. Strauss.
The ceremony concluded with speeches by Nunez and the rest of the seniors as they handed over the trophies and plaques they had accrued this season to Gibson to be placed in the school’s trophy case.
“These girls have put so much time in and it’s so good for them to finally get rewarded for all their hard work and everything that they’ve done,” Keystone softball coach Jim Piazza said. “The community and everything, it’s been unbelievable. You see why our program is so good. The community backing to this is just unbelievable. It’s overwhelming.”
Piazza gave Gibson credit for putting the event together, a daunting task after they came up with the parade theme of future, present and past state champions.
“I wanted to make sure that the younger kids were involved and (Gibson) thought that was a great idea,” Piazza said. “We always talk about the girls in the past who’ve set the standard, and we wanted to make sure that they know we haven’t forgotten what they’ve done for our program.”
While organizing dozens of youth players and contacting members from Keystone’s other three state title teams — 1999, 2006 and 2012 — seems like the stuff of nightmares, Gibson said she got plenty of help putting the event together.
“I think the neatest thing about Keystone is what a deep sense of tradition every single piece and part of our community seems to understand,” Gibson said. “So very quickly I realized that we had quite a network of coaches and Hot Stove directors and board members that were at our fingertips. So all we did was put out a couple phone calls and before you know it people were giggling and laughing and getting excited to get all of our young ladies involved in this day. I think it just speaks to what we do here at Keystone.”
One of the more notable former players — seated in a vintage convertible and representing the program’s first state title team — was star pitcher Amie Leffew, who went on to open Leffew Fastpitch, a softball training facility that began in LaGrange and relocated to North Ridgeville.
“I’m not going to lie, I tear up every time,” she said of the championship parade. “Because you know what they are going through, it’s a really special moment for them. You know the hard work that they’ve put in … I’m just so happy for them.”
Leffew, who joked that some of the youth players that led the parade might be her former classmates’ kids, said she’s happy to see how the Keystone softball program, which came into prominence under her father Dave’s coaching reign, has blossomed over the last two decades.
“(My father) left the program in very capable hands,” she said. “Jim Piazza was his JV coach when he was there and Jim worked through that program with him and then just took it to a whole other level. He knew it was something special, and we as a community are so blessed that Jim just really held on to the tradition and to the work ethic that my dad put in and now Jim does.”
The parade participants raved about the community’s commitment during the event.
“I did not think there would be that many people there,” Nunez said. “It was surprising. It was such a weird time, like 5, there were still a lot of people at work, but still so many people gave up time and came up here.”
The bulk of the crowd gathered at the city’s turnaround. Fans were decked in purple — one wearing a full-body moose suit with a Keystone shirt — and waved banners and signs as the parade went past.
“It was so neat walking up to that circle because the entire parade’s eyes got bigger as we moved into the center of our town,” Gibson said. “When you talk about the symbolism of that being the heart of what we do location-wise, and for our community to come out and be part of that, it was amazing. I couldn’t be smiling more that entire time.”
The community wouldn’t mind making the parade an annual thing, and many of the returning players believe Keystone, which finished No. 4 in the final USA Today Super 25 national poll, has a good chance of defending its title.
Knowing that former state title team members get to be a part of the celebration, Nunez said she’s looking forward to the program’s next championship.
“Hopefully it’s next year, but if tradition continues it’ll at least be in another six years and I’ll get to ride in those cars,” she said with a smile.
Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like him on Facebook and follow him @ShaunBennettct on Twitter.
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