Chillicothe (Mo.) HS baseball hosts Lafayette in first-round state game today
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
If the weather holds off and "Chuck" Haney Field proves dry enough, the Chillicothe (Mo.) HS baseball Hornets will host fellow Midland Empire Conference member St. Joseph: Lafayette in a first-round (sectional) game in the 2021 Missouri Class 4 high school baseball state tournament at 5 p.m. today.
A 1:50 p.m. C-T visit to "June" Shaffer Memorial Park Stadium found final field preparations underway by chief groundskeeper/field prep supervisor Kevin Haney of Chillicothe Parks and Recreation Department, and crew members, even as a sprinkle began and skies to the west were filled with potential rain-producing clouds.
Haney noted the dirt portion of the infield was dry and easily playable at that juncture, but still wet not far below the surface. As a result, any new rainfall would not quickly get absorbed and could threaten the game's happening today.
Haney, son of the field's namesake, noted that the notoriously-thick and often-long infield grass had been cut twice in the prior 24 hours, the last time down to 3-3/4 inches, "the lowest we've been able to cut it this spring,"
Additionally, the outfield grass also was cut twice after Monday's rain, the last time to four inches, also its shortest thus far in 2021.
Host CHS is an unlikely combatant in the game, given it was seeded last in its 5-teams District 15 tournament after entering the postseason 9-12. Now, posting three upset wins, it will rematch with Lafayette's Fighting Irish, who downed Chillicothe 4-3 at St. Joseph in their lone regular-season meeting on April 27. Lafayette (17-7) was the No. 1 seed in the District 16 tournament.
Today's winner will move on to face the survivor of today's Lee's Summit: Summit Christian Academy at Pleasant Hill contest in the state quarterfinals Thursday. If Chillicothe advances to the quarterfinals round, it will play on the road.
When Chillicothe and Lafayette squared off at Phil Welch Stadium in St. Joseph in late April, the Hornets were in the early stages of a 3-10 downturn to their campaign after an encouraging 6-2 start.
Still, with their most-experienced pitcher, righthander Mason Baxter, toeing the rubber, CHS netted a hitless second-inning run and a pair in the top of the third on two singles, an error, and two groundouts to lead the heavily-favored Irish 3-0 after 2-1/2 innings.
However, in the bottom of the third, an inning-opening Chillicothe error and a followup single brought the top of the St. Joseph northsiders' potent lineup to the plate.
Following a sacrifice bunt, an intentional walk to Lafayette star and designated hitter Brayden Luikart loaded the bases.
With CHS first-year head coach Joshua Lisle hoping Baxter could get a strikeout or induce a ground ball that might lead to a double play, LHS staring third baseman and No. 3 batter Jayden Little had different notions.
Having taken over the Irish pitching duties with one out in the top half of the inning, Little immediately positioned himself for the relief win he'd earn by smashing an 0-1 pitch to deep left field that carried over the Welch Stadium wall for a lead-grabbing grand slam home run.
Even with Baxter quickly steadying and allowing only one hit, one walk, and having a third man reach on an error through the final 3-2/3 innings, the necessary damage had been inflicted with one swing of Little's bat.
Protecting the 1-run lead, Little eventually threw 3-1/3 innings of 2-hits, shutout relief, fanning six while issuing three walks. When college-signed and highly-regarded Luikart was summoned to the hill with a man on and two outs in the CHS sixth, he struck out the batter on a 2-2 delivery and fanned the side in order on 14 offerings in the seventh for the save.
The teams combined for only eight hits, evenly split between them. CHS committed two errors and LHS one.
Going the 6-innings distance impressively, Baxter not only held Lafayette to four hits, but walked only two while hitting no one and fanned seven.
Given that effort and his two wins in the three district-tourney victories, the senior projects as the top candidate to start on the hill for Chillicothe today.
However, given his own strong couple of outings in district play and the fact that Lafayette batters have not faced him previously, junior righthander Gage Leamer might get the nod from Lisle, allowing the more sure-handed Baxter to man the shortstop position.
Similarly from the Lafayette perspective, there are two very viable options for starting pitcher. The exceptional Luikart, who defeated CHS in the district championship game at Welch Stadium in 2019, or Little, who throttled the Hornets in relief last month.
The decision on which to start might hinge on how fresh LHS coaches might want to try to have Luikart for Thursday's potential quarterfinal game and how many of his allotted allowance of pitches they'll want him to have.
Chances are, given Chillicothe's break-even record, Lafayette will gamble initially on "saving" Luikart for the quarterfinals, unless he's absolutely needed today.
If the weather prevents the game from being played today, presumably it will be reset for tomorrow (Wednesday), again in Chillicothe.