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Postseason Recognition Caps Excellent Chillicothe (Mo.) HS Softball Season

Sophia Luetticke’s second-team All-State selection this week completed lineup-long parade of honors for league champs. 16-6 season included 16 wins in last 18 games, defeats of two state runnersup

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Nine members of the 2020 Midland Empire Conference softball champion and district-runnerup Chillicothe High School softball Lady Hornets received some level of postseason recognition for their contributions to the team's outstanding campaign, it was recounted by head coach Lee Rucker during last Monday's postseason awards event at the school. That group included, from left: Front – shortstop Kirsten Dunn, outfielder/pitcher Mollie Ellis, pitcher/third baseman Halle Rucker, catcher/outfielder Hope Helton; Back – center fielder Sophia Luetticke, second baseman Bre Pithan, first/third baseman Brooke Horton, pitcher/first baseman Kinlei Boley, and outfielder/catcher Mika Hibner. Luetticke, who broke CHS records for highest batting average, hits, and runs scored in a season, received the highest postseason laurel, being voted to the Missouri High School Fastpitch Coaches Association's Class 3 All-State second team.
  • MEC title was program's first since 2011
  • Luetticke CHS' first All-State pick since 2014
  • All nine lineup regulars were all-conference honorees, five on first team
  • Lady Hornets outscored state runnersup Savannah, Hamilton a combined 17-6 in three meetings

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

It didn’t reach the postseason heights of the 2011 state-runnerup squad or even win a district championship, as nine of its predecessors had since the program was inaugurated in 1996, but the 2020 Chillicothe High School softball team – even with a player roster including only two seniors – carved out one of the more-remarkable and historic seasons in CHS diamond annals.

As a group, it emphatically and without blemish ended a 9-years drought since the Lady Hornets’ most-recent Midland Empire Conference championship, along with reeling off 10 victories in a row on one midseason stretch – including defeating two opponents which eventually would be state runnersup – and breaking a team statistical record. Individually, four offensive records were broken, five players were voted first-team all-MEC, all nine regulars gained some level of postseason recognition – several multiple times, and a 5-years lag in having an All-State player was terminated.

First-year head coach Lee Rucker, who kept his team pointed in a positive direction ever after its first four outings ended in defeats, summed it up succinctly for the players and their families at this past Monday’s postseason awards and recognition event at the school.

“You put Chillicothe softball back ‘on the map,’” he said proudly.

The season ended thrillingly, if not as satisfyingly as hoped, on the Lady Hornets’ home Daryl Danner Memorial Park field Saturday, Oct. 17, when, after leading much of the way as they sought a 17th win in 18 games, they were nipped by eventual Class 3 state runnerup Savannah 5-4 after leading their Class 3 District 8 contest much of the way.

The defeat shuttered the exciting season with a 16-6 record, a mark which included defeating Savannah 10-0 in six innings early in the season and eventual Class 2 state runnerup Hamilton: Penney 3-1. In three games total against those two clubs, CHS had a 17-6 runs advantage.

The end of game play didn’t stop the “wins” from coming the Lady Hornets’ way, though.

The off-field triumphs finally were capped early this week when CHS record-breaking junior outfielder Sophia Luetticke was chosen to the Missouri High School Fastpitch Coaches Association’s Class 3 All-State second team. The last previous Lady Hornet chosen All-State was Samantha Baldwin in 2014.

Coming on the heels of her being a first-team choice at the conference, district, and regional levels, the lefthanded-hitting leadoff hitter’s repeated recognition reflected the stupendous offensive season she had.

She ripped 46 hits, scored 40 runs, and batted .568, each of those numbers surpassing previous official CHS records established by Carole Myers (runs and hits) and Abby Jones (average). She struck out only five times in 87 plate appearances.

Paced by Luetticke, but supplemented by the entire length and breadth of the batting order, the 2020 Lady Hornets also obliterated the record for highest composite batting average for the team. Their eye-popping .399 mark – one hit or one at-bat shy of a stunning .400 mark – dwarfed the .372 average of the 2018 team.

One other player – sophomore pitcher/first baseman Kinlei Boley – was a CHS record-breaker this fall. Her 36 runs batted in surpassed the 34 multiple-times All-State honoree (as pitcher) Sarah Baldwin posted in her senior season when the 2011 state runnersup went 24-4. Sar. Baldwin also had shared the season hits record with Myers.

As Rucker noted, while the batting averages are readily comparable, regardless of the number of games played, the fact that this year’s COVID-19-impacted and constricted schedule left the team playing about five or more games less than it otherwise might have in a normal year, for Luetticke and Boley to eclipse the marks in “counting-number” categories was extra impressive.

He also pointed out that, while she reaped all-conference, district, and region honors for her pitching performance, Boley’s bat work was of record-breaking proportions, too.

Her batting average of .554, while trailing her current teammate, was only a shade shy of matching former teammate Jones’ .557 in 2018.

Aside from that, her .607 on-base percentage, .811 slugging rate, and 1.418 OPS are tops for a season in CHS history since 2003; exact numbers for those metrics are not available for the first half-dozen years of the program.

Mollie Ellis, one of two seniors on the 2020 Chillicothe High School softball Lady Hornets, fills in the final portion of the "20" numerals on the CHS gymnasium wall by-sport display of the school's conference champions through history as first-year head coach Lee Rucker looks on at the conclusion of this past Monday's postseason awards/recognition event for CHS' Midland Empire Conference title-winning squad. Outfielder/pitcher Ellis and corner infielder Brooke Horton are the only team members who won't potentially be back with the squad in 2021. This fall's MEC title was Chillicothe's first since 2011.

The most tangible accomplishments of this year’s team came on the conference level.

Not that long ago, Chillicothe didn’t draw much regard from coaches of other programs in the Midland Empire Conference, a league CHS largely ruled on the diamond from 2003-2011, winning seven loop championships in that 9-years span. From 2015-17, not one Lady Hornet was voted to the all-MEC first team by coaches around the league.

When veteran coaches around the MEC saw this season’s Chillicothe team start its year with four losses in a row prior to making their conference debut, they might well have thought the 2020 Lady Hornets, 4-3 in league play in 2019, were headed toward conference mediocrity again. At best.

Coach Rucker had a different perspective, knowing the quality of the teams to which his club had lost to that point.

“If you want to be a great team, you have to play great teams,” he said of the plan to elevate the Lady Hornets by testing them repeatedly.

An 8-6 home triumph over Cameron in their MEC opener scarcely raised an eyebrow, even though it was Chillicothe’s record-leveling fourth-straight victory, but. for the Lady Hornets, that victory turned out to be the nadir of their conference season.

Two days later, they marched into Savannah and torched the defending league champs and 2019 state third-place finishing Lady Savages 10-0 in six innings. From there, Chillicothe never looked back.

By the time they polished off host St. Joseph: Benton 12-2 in five innings in a COVID-19-delayed encounter on Oct. 9, the Lady Hornets – with a regular lineup involving only two seniors – had made a perfect run through the conference. And not only did they sweep all seven MEC outings, they did it by a nearly-unfathomable cumulative 82-12 runs differential.

It’s no wonder, then, that the 2020 Chillicothe team was the dominant presence on this year’s all-conference team with five first-team players, two second-teamers, and two with honorable mention. Essentially, every Lady Hornet regular made a big impression on one or more MEC coaches.

Joining Luetticke as all-conference first-team choices were Boley at pitcher, junior Mike Hibner in the outfield (she was a first-team catcher last year), sophomore catcher Hope Helton, and sophomore shortstop Kirsten Dunn on the infield.

Getting second-team spots were senior corner infielder Brooke Horton, whose four home runs led the team, and junior Halle Rucker as a pitcher.

Honorable mention was gained by senior outfielder Mollie Ellis and sophomore second baseman Bre Pithan.

“Team success helps garner player recognition,” coach Rucker shared. “Our team is being recognized for having a great season.”

The state coaches’ association develops its All-State team through a 3-tiered system of recognition for season-long play.

Coaches from each team in each Missouri State High School Activities Association playoff district meet during or after their district tourneys to select the best players from throughout the season to first and second all-district teams. Players chosen first team then are eligible for consideration as all-region players and, similarly, first-team all-region selection is necessary to be examined for the All-State team.

With the 6-teams Class 3 District 8 field which played its tournament in Chillicothe “loaded with talent,” in coach Rucker’s words, the Lady Hornets very much held their own, having five players chosen first-team and three more second-team.

On the top level were infielder Dunn, catcher Helton, outfielders Hibner and Luetticke, and pitcher Boley. Gaining second-team berths were both seniors – Ellis and Horton – and H. Rucker.

“We were very fortunate to get several players on,” coach Rucker reacted when the team was announced.

All five CHS all-region first team choices then were included on the all-region roster, paced by Luetticke being chosen as a first-team standout. Each of the other four were included on the second team.

Chances are, had Chillicothe fended off Savannah for the district championship and advanced to the state quarterfinals and, quite possibly (based on Savannah’s success) beyond, Luetticke could have been named first-team All-State and some of the other four probably would have been first-team all-region and thus given All-State consideration.

“It was a lot of fun,” coach Rucker summed up the year for the socially-distanced and limited awards event audience of players and family members. “A lot of success. A lot of good memories.”

Luetticke’s sensational season numbers were accented by one torrid 11-games midseason stretch.

Beginning with the conference opener against Cameron and extending through the MEC finale at St. Joseph: Benton, she swatted 28 hits in 39 official at-bats – a sizzling .718 clip. Embedded in the middle of that was a stretch in which she had hits in nine of 10 at-bats.

Overall, Chillicothe produced five batters – Hibner, Dunn, Helton, Boley, and Luetticke – who hit .408 or higher for the season, but the Lady Hornets weren’t just a singles-hitting team. A half-dozen hit home runs – four of them more than one. In addition to Horton’s four, Boley and Hibner “went deep” three times each. Nearly one-third (13) of Boley’s 41 hits went for extra bases.

“We made hitting a big focus right from the start of practices and they worked hard on it,” coach Rucker saluted the players.

Pitching-wise, Boley was the busiest and most effective, but H. Rucker and Ellis threw well in giving her rest after an injury-crimped freshman season.

Boley posted an 11-2 won-lost record and 1.74 earned run average while having a super 114:12 strikeouts-to-walks ratio across the 88-2/3 innings she threw.

H. Rucker earned four saves in as many chances and Ellis one in one try. They combined for a 5-2 record.

Defensively, Chillicothe played decently early in the season and got progressively better and better. It ended up being charged with only 30 total errors in 22 games. Only one player had more than three miscues.

Given the capacity for distraction and disruption the coronavirus pandemic constantly shrouded the season with, coach Rucker saluted his players’ focus on day-by-day improvement and competition.

“The girls did a good job of adapting (to a shifting schedule and unexpected opponents) and just playing softball.”

In looking to a hopefully-bright future, coach Rucker and assistant/junior-varsity head coach Canaan Fairley shared that the ingredients for an even-better 2021 are in the cupboard. The JV team went 9-4 in its games.

All told, varsity letters went to 16 players and managers Skylar Dennis and Rhyan Kincade. Another eight younger players received provisional letters.