PERRY TWP.: The Perry softball team endured a little stress before defeating its tournament nemesis, North Canton Hoover, in the district semifinals. The Panthers then were scoreless for three innings before rising up to defeat No. 1 seed Louisville for the district title.

After four consecutive Division I tournament wins by a collective score of 35-0, Perry’s moment of truth came in the bottom of the first inning in Saturday’s Akron regional final against Willoughby South.

The home team Rebels had the bases loaded with one out and were threatening to be the first team to take a lead on Perry and ace pitcher Payton Gottshall. Possibly a big lead, which might induce big pressure on Perry. Or not.

Gottshall went to the back of the circle, regrouped mentally and struck out the next two Rebels.

Thank you, yoga. Thank you, Perry instructors Dr. Margaret DeLillo-Storey, district clinical counselor, and Lori Howenstine, the Health Science Academy department chair.

“It does help,” Gottshall said after Perry’s 14-0 win put it in Thursday’s state semifinal against Teays Valley at Firestone Stadium. “They have us do breathing [exercises], deep breathing in and out. I did that that first inning. Then I got back on [my game].”

Perry senior Riley Lesh said the weekly breathing techniques they practice are a valuable restart mechanism.

“It helps us focus and remember to have calm intensity,” the second baseman said. “Just bring it, and relax. Stay calm, cool and collected.

“I like it a lot. It helps us bring our focus back to the game.”

Gotthshall was so focused (and relaxed) she drilled a home run in the third inning of the regional final to start the scoring. Lesh went 3-for-4 with a walk. And that’s the way the Perry team has performed all postseason — with what coach Scott Daugherty has described as “a calm intensity.”

Daugherty said before this season began that he wanted to put his Panthers in as many pressure situations as possible so they knew how to react when the heat was on. His previous four Perry teams had enjoyed great success — 20-plus wins, Federal League championships, No. 1 seeds and No. 2 state rankings — but had not advanced out of the brutal Massillon Division I district.

He felt the players internalized pressure and eventually it affected their efforts.

Enter yoga.

“It’s something we’ve been doing once a week in addition to our strength training,” Daugherty said. “We lift twice during the week and do yoga once, a lot of core strength conditioning. Our girls have noticed a difference in their flexibilty. But, it’s really about the breathing.

“Yoga helps to slow everything down. Those deep breaths are just slowing down the athletes a little bit; it slows your heart rate down a little bit. Doing those things, I think, has really allowed them to relax and play well in these big moments.”

Yoga is both a physical and mental exercise. It works the body and mind. It deals with the individual and the group.

“We do it in kind of a small room,” Gottshall said. “So we kind of mess around a little bit. It’s just relaxing for us. It gets our mind clear. We come in [to games and practice] refreshed.”

Gottshall’s battery mate Gia Durieux agreed.

“It helps a lot,” the junior catcher said. “It definitely mentally prepares us. It helps mentally more than anything. We do yoga, sometimes we do water yoga and obviously we do our lifting. We do the yoga to mentally take a break from everything.”

Not everything has gone Perry’s way in 2018. It started out with washed-out, snowed-out games. Then a 3-3 start. Back-to-back losses to Hillsdale and Louisville. A knee injury to senior pitcher Makenna Durieux.

Throughout the early trials and tribulations, the Panthers were breathing as one. Now they are 23-5 and where they’ve always wanted to be.

“The only thing that’s changed this year is we’re doing more mental training,” Daugherty said. “Is that part of the secret to our success? I have no idea. But our girls are playing with more confidence than they ever have before.

“I’ve got to believe that is part of it.”