Defensive struggles, key wildness, general lack of big hits conspire to let Kirksville claim win Thursday. CHS finishes year 11-9
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
MARSHALL, Mo. — One step out of character for the Chillicothe High School softball Lady Hornets Thursday night led to the demise of their hopes for a berth in the Class 3 state tournament.
After some defensive mistakes – not unoommon for the relatively-young CHS squad this fall – had been overcome by a rally – another hallmark of this year’s diamond Lady Hornets, the lower half of the batting order – as it had done many times in 2018 – produced some scoring – in this case, a go-ahead run in the top of the sixth inning – to position Chillicothe to capture the Class 3 District 15 Tournament championship.
However, after Kirksville, the tourney’s No. 1 seed, ignited a comeback of its own with a clean leadoff single in the bottom of the sixth and then a bunt hit as it tried to sacrifice the potential tying run into scoring position, a development which reasonably could have been expected to be a bugaboo throughout the season, but which surprisingly was seldom experienced reared its trouble-making head at a terrible time.
Nursing a razor-thin 4-3 advantage after missing a chance to add on to its tiebreaking tally in the top of the sixth, Chillicothe saw three consecutive Kirksville Lady Tigers saunter down the line to first base without swinging the bat to get there.
A hit KHS batter loaded the bases and succeeding back-to-back bases on balls forced home, first, the championship contest’s equalizer and then what settled out as the winning run in an eventual 8-4 Lady Tigers triumph.
Despite having no pitcher with more than an inning of varsity hurling experience at season’s start and splitting nearly the entire season’s pitching chores between sophomore Molly Ellis and freshman Halle Rucker, Chillicothe had fashioned a winning season in no small part because, despite their inexperience, the pitching pair consistently had made opponents hit their way on base by throwing the ball in the strike zone with regularity.
On this potential championship night, however, starting and losing righthander Rucker uncharacteristically walked three and hit one and Ellis gave a free pass to the first batter she faced in the massive, bases-full, tied-game jam she was summoned into.
Once Ellis got past that initial walk, she induced potential out-producing batted balls that, had all of them been handled cleanly, could have limited the damage to only a 5-4 or 6-4 deficit entering CHS’ final offensive half-inning.
However, a couple more Chillicothe fielding miscues – part of a 5-errors night that allowed Kirksville to plate six unearned markers – dug the hole deeper than the Lady Hornets had a reasonable chance of escaping with only three more outs to work with.
As it turned out, highly-promising KHS starting pitcher Sophie Stuart might have been too formidable for Chillicothe to overcome any deficit in its last chance.
Facing the Nos. 2-4 batters in the Lady Hornets lineup a fourth time in the game, the Lady Tigers righthander notched her 12th strikeout of the game, followed by a soft line drive back to her, and, finally, a routine bouncing ball to the second baseman that became the last out of Chillicothe’s fourth-consecutive winning season.
The title game was no showpiece, no exhibition of sterling play for either side, but the final outcome favoring Kirksville probably was just.
The tone of misadventures, misplays, and missed chances was set immediately when, as the visiting team, Chillicothe got a game-starting infield hit from Libby Adkins, but – with her already in scoring position and stalwart Nos. 3 and 4 batters Abby Jones and Mika Hibner coming up – a seemingly-signalled attempted steal of third by Adkins had her cut down easily by the KHS catcher, leaving A. Jones – a night after ripping a home run, triple, and single with four runs batted in – to finish her plate appearance with none on and two out. She wound up striking out, the first of Stuart’s dozen victims, leaving M. Hibner to lead off the second inning, rather than get a chance to do first-inning damage.
When Kirksville’s first batter of the game swung and missed for strike three on a pitch gloved by Chillicothe’s catcher on a short hop, recording the first out seemed simple enough – make a simple toss to first base that would arrive well before the batter could arrive. However, the throw was off-line, eluding the first baseman and going down the right-field line in foul territory, and, rather than being out, the Kirksville batter was at second base with no outs.
When a wild pitch followed while the next Lady Tiger batted, Rucker found herself with a player she’d fanned now staring at her from third base, anxious to score the game’s first run. The Chillicothe frosh didn’t let the misfortune bother her, though.
She induced a shallow fly ball to left field from the second batter, keeping the runner at third, then got the subsequent Lady Tiger to roll a ball to third baseman Dawsyn Lightner. As the KHS runner at third tried to score, Lightner fielded the ball cleanly and zipped an on-target throw to catcher Lexi Walker to get the out at the plate on a close play.
The Kirksville first inning then had a rather fitting conclusion when a ground ball toward the second baseman struck the leg of the Lady Tigers baserunner. The interference gave Chillicothe the third out even as the batter technically received credit for her team’s first hit of the game.
Things didn’t get any less weird in the second inning, at least not when Kirksville batted.
After Chillioothe couldn’t do anything with Kennedy Corzette’s 2-outs single in the top of the frame, well-placed balls off KHS bats became hits for the first two batters of the home half. They then took third and second bases, respectively, on another wild pitch.
Again in a tough spot, Rucker once more showed her moxie, striking out the next Lady Tiger looking before again inducing a 1-out grounder. This time, instead of it becoming an out at the plate or at least at first base, the ball wasn’t handled cleanly and Kirksville had a 1-0 lead.
The next batter hit another ground ball that, on a wild throw home, again did not produce an out as it could have. By the time the play ended, Kirksville had a second run on the scoreboard, runners at second and third bases, and still merely one out.
A tap to second baseman Jordan Hibner resulted in the second out, but at the cost of a third KHS run, before J. Hibner, who had a stellar defensive game, made a tough play to her right to get the last out and prevent a fourth run.
Rucker’s and J. Hibner’s work in limiting the Kirksville damage to three runs quickly bore fruit, even if it likewise required help from the opposing fielders to do so.
With one down in the top of the third and Stuart already having fanned four Lady Hornets, Rucker hit a routine grounder on the artificial turf, but the second baseman fumbled it for a moment or two and the hustling Rucker just beat the throw at first.
Adkins then chopped a high bouncer to the third baseman that easily went for an infield hit as courtesy runner Julia Stimpson took second base.
Walker followed with a clean hit to left to load the bases for CHS’ best hitter. Stuart, however, was up to the challenge again. A. Jones skimmed a grounder right back to the pitcher, who gloved it cleanly and calmly threw to the catcher for a forceout at home for the second out of the inning.
That still left M. Hibner, owner of multiple home runs this season, to deal with with the sacks still jammed. As the count went to 3-1, Chillicothe fans envisioned the freshman finding a fat pitch and plating multiple runs with a big hit.
She did, sort of.
M. Hibner bounced the 3-1 offering toward the middle of the diamond, but semmingly able to be easily fielded and turned into an inning-ending forceout at second base. On this cool night, however, whether because of the weather or nervousness or simply the vagaries of athletic competition, there didn’t seem to be any “routine” plays.
The bouncing ball, reaching the fielder at about waist-height in made-to-order manner, deflected off the infielder’s leather instead of into it, caroming into short center field. Adkins from third and Walker from second scored easily on the error and A. Jones hurried to third, beating the throw there standing up.
When the center fielder fired to third to try to get A. Jones, M. Hibner, after a slight hesitation, continued on toward second base, drawing a belated throw back there from the KHS third baseman. As the Kirksville shortstop took the throw and spun around to tag the incoming runner, the sliding M. Hibner was ruled safe on a bang-bang call while A. Jones started back up and darted home from third. Although it had not been with a hit, M. Hibner had indeed delivered a blow which led to three CHS runs scoring and a tied game.
As would happen again in the fateful sixth inning, Chillicothe could not come up with a hit with the runner in scoring position and two out that could have swung the momentum further their way, but at least it was back on even terms.
The championship game then settled into a modicum of normalcy for a while, with each side having a scoring chance the opposing pitcher withstood without surrendering the go-ahead run.
With the 4-4 knot still in place as Chillicothe, playing as the visitors, came to bat in the sixth inning, the possibility that a single run by either team from here on out might decide things was very real. Unfortunately for the Lady Hornets, netting that one run did not prove to be sufficient.
Having just denied Kirksville a lead-seizing, 2-outs single in the bottom of the fifth with a leaping spear of pinch-hitter Sydney Weber’s line drive to her left, J. Hibner led off the top of the sixth being hit by a pitch.
Corzette followed with a sharply-hit grounder a few feet inside the third-base line that the Kirksville third baseman sank to her knees as she gloved it to make sure it didn’t get through her. Throwing across the diamond from her knees, her strong, on-target throw barely beat the batter-runner for the first out as J. Hibner moved to second.
A couple of pitches later, Kirkpatrick zipped a hit into right-center field, easily scoring J. Hibner to give Chillicothe its first and only lead, 4-3.
After the next batter struck out, Rucker wangled a walk, bringing up the top of the lineup with a 2-outs chance to pop the game open. However, with Adkins owning three prior infield hits, Stuart stood tall in this confrontation, fanning her to strand Lady Hornets at second and first.
Instead of the extra boost and margin one or more hits would have given them, the Lady Hornets re-took the field defensively, searching for six outs before any more Kirksville scoring. To the Lady Tigers’ credit, before CHS recorded even one out, the No. 1 seed not only had reclaimed the lead, but had recaptured its original 3-runs cushion, an advantage which swelled to four before the Lady Hornets could put out the fire.
Statistically, Thursday’s title tilt saw two-thirds of the 12 total runs be unearned as Chillicothe committed its five errors and Kirksville two. Even if going by only their earned runs, the Lady Tigers still would have prevailed 3-1.
In addition to her 12 strikeouts, KHS ninth grader Stuart surrendered only that single earned tally, even though Chillicothe did touch her for seven total hits. Only in its 3-runs third inning did CHS get more than one hit in an inning, however.
Kirksville whiffed only twice total (including the uncompleted, would-be strikeout in its first at-bat) and collected nine hits in its six offensive innings. Three times in the game, the Lady Tigers (14-13) had two hits in an inning, keeping almost constant pressure on the CHS pitchers and fielders.
Individually, Adkins and Hannah Meyer of Kirksville each went three for four with the bat. CHS’ Corzette and KHS’ Annabel Zimmer had a pair of hits each.
Chillicothe’s third-straight trip to a district-title game ended with a second-straight loss in such contests, but with only five seniors on its 2018 roster and a mere one of those being a regular starter and both of the pitchers the Lady Hornets utliized this fall due back – still as underclasswomen – in 2019, the opportunity for another winning year and another crack at a district crown looms as very real.