Softball Lady Hornets seem primed to defend, ascend
Most of MEC champ, district runnerup roster returns
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
When a relatively-young 2020 Chillicothe High School softball Lady Hornets team under a new head coach dropped its first four games on the heels of the program’s first losing season in five years the previous fall, some might have questioned where the team was headed.
The answer came loud and clear: Straight up.
Following their 0-4 beginning to head coach Lee Rucker’s tenure at the helm, last year’s Lady Hornets won 16 of their next 17 games, claiming – in perfect 7-0 fashion – the program’s first Midland Empire Conference championship since 2011, before seeing a 3-1 lead in the district-championship battle with eventual Class 3 state runnerup Savannah ooze away to become a 5-4 season-ending loss last Oct. 17.
“It definitely left a hunger, coming up short in the district, especially after we had beaten Savannah (10-0 at Savannah) during the regular season,” Rucker reports on his 2021 returning players’ mindset as the new season approaches.
“It really whet their appetite and they’ve been really driven. I think they’ve been looking forward to this season since Oct. 17.”
What might the amazing turnaround fashioned last fall portend for the 2021 season?
Numerically, it’s hard to tell, since there are plenty of likely-quality foes dotting the schedule, but, with only two graduation losses from the usual ’20 starting lineup, at least an approximation of last year’s 16-5 final record seems clear with contention for a league-title repeat likely. A 20-wins season – something the Lady Hornets have not produced since stringing together four in a row from 2008-11 – would not be out of the question.
“Really looking to build off that momentum,” coach Rucker told the C-T last Friday.
And the 2021 postseason?
Even if the Missouri State High School Activities Association’s district assignments put CHS in a stacked grouping, as was the case last fall, this year’s Lady Hornets figure to be quite capable of holding their own again.
“We’ve got a lot of talented players that have played a lot of softball,” coach Rucker shared in last week’s visit. “(We) Had a good summer and the girls are ready to go.”
Personnel-wise, both figuratively and literally, this year’s team has virtually all of the bases covered, needing to replace only graduated corner-infield stalwart Brooke Horton and outfielder/pitcher Mollie Ellis.
“It’s nice not to have to fill five spots or six spots,” coach Rucker acknowledged.
In, arguably, the four most-critical fielding positions – pitcher, catcher, shortstop and center field – CHS has not only returning starters who were first-team all-MEC in 2020, but experienced depth at the most-critical two.
Back to play center field and, presumably, serve as leadoff hitter is 2020 Missouri High School Fastpitch Coaches Association second-team All-State senior Sophia Luetticke, who smashed three offensive team records as an 11th grader.
The speedy left-handed hitter batted .568, collecting 48 hits and scoring 40 times from the leadoff spot last season, hitting over .700 in one midseason stretch of about 10 games. Her average, hits and runs totals all were new CHS single standards and she was a primary contributor to the composite team batting average of .399 which eclipsed the former team best.
At shortstop again will be junior Kirsten Dunn, who previously had not played that position regularly any time in her previous school and non-school career, coach Rucker noted. Her newness at the position showed during the first half of the season, but Dunn settled in down the stretch and, as she relaxed as she gained that experience, utilized her athleticism, talent, and softball savvy to emerge as a very good fielder by season’s end.
With the bat, she also advanced as she moved through her first full varsity season, finishing with a .437 batting average. She was third on the club in average, hits, and extra-base hits.
Behind home plate, the Lady Hornets should be well-fortified with junior Hope Helton and, if needed, senior former starter Mika Hibner, who otherwise figures to play a lot of first base.
Helton came on strong as 2020 played out, her defensive work pushing her into the primary role there, shifting 2018 and ’19 all-MEC first-team receiver Hibner to left field, where she was all-league first team again. She also batted .408, solidifying herself in the No. 2 spot in the lineup behind Luetticke down the stretch. Her mere four passed ball in nearly 80 innings behind the plate help minimize the impact of opponents getting on base.
Hibner, one of four seniors on this year’s squad, has started since she was a freshman, thanks to her big bat. She was one of three Lady Hornets to homer at least three times last year, including doing so with a runner on in the district title game to give Chillicothe its 3-1 lead after three innings. She ripped 11 extra-base hits altogether while compiling a .417 batting average and 1.142 on-base-plus-slugging rate.
In the pitcher’s role will be junior Kinlei Boley and senior Halle Rucker, each playing a corner infield spot (Rucker third base and Boley first) when not throwing. Boley was first-team all-MEC last year and Rucker second-team, so CHS should be very good in the sport’s most-important and dominant position.
“We’re really strong in both of those spots,” coach Rucker says of the Lady Hornets’ pitchers and catchers.
Boley posted a team-best 1.74 earned-run average (per seven innings) as a sophomore, limiting opponents 45 runs (22 earned) on only 71 hits and 12 walks over 88-2/3 innings. While averaging less than a baserunner allowed per inning, she struck out 117 batters, fanning about 10 foes for every one she walked. She posted an 11-2 won-lost record and saved a game in her only chance.
H. Rucker threw 30-1/3 innings across 12 appearances, half of them as a reliever. In four save opportunities, she successfully converted each one. Although she surrendered 45 hits, she walked only 10 in her 30-plus innings, making opponents work for what scoring they did against her.
Coach Rucker expects to groom sophomore Hadley Beemer, who threw the most in junior-varsity action last year, as the potential 2022 backup to Boley by getting her into a number of varsity games this fall.
Not only will Boley and Rucker figure to limit the offense generated by opponents this fall, but they’ll likely be big contributors when they have a bat in their own hands.
Boley broke the team record for runs batted in in a season with 36 last year when she batted .554 with team-best rates of .607 for getting on base, .811 for slugging (she had a team-high 13 extra-base hits, including team-highs of 10 doubles and three home runs), and 1.418 on-base-plus-slugging.
Rucker was a key component in the 2020 offense’s success by batting .320 from usually the No. 9 spot in the order, often setting up the potent top half of the order for big-inning chances. With Horton’s and Ellis’ departures, she could rise in the lineup or her coach/father could elect to have her continue to serve as a second igniter for the attack from the No. 9 spot.
The seventh returning regular from a year ago is junior Bre Pithan, who played mostly second base. She figures to remain there, as much for her offensive potential as her fielding. She socked a pair of home runs and five extra-base hits in only 62 plate appearances as a sophomore. With a year’s experience, she might be ready to upgrade her impact on what figures to already be a healthy attack.
Of the two spots to be filled, the coaching staff’s highest hope is that sophomore Jolie Bonderer is ready to step in and handle left field. Very instinctively-athletic and blessed with good speed and size, he was used mostly as a courtesy runner a year ago, scoring 21 runs. She batted only 11 times in varsity-level action, but projects to improve on the .200 batting average she had in those limited chances.
Likely to see extensive action, although in what role, is the team’s fourth senior, Dawsyn Lightner. She’s previously seen time at third base and in left field, making her a candidate to play when Rucker’s pitching with either Boley or Hibner serving as an “extra hitter” while the other handles first base. If she boosts her hitting from last fall, Lightner could be an “extra hitter” option when Boley throws if she doesn’t win one of the corner outfield spots.
Several young players – sophomore Isabelle Fitzpatrick and freshmen Vyctoria “Tori” Stoner and Alyssa Munroe – also are being considered as possibilities in right or left field, according to coach Rucker.
“We’ll have to see who’s ready and who’s able to contribute at the varsity level,” commented coach Rucker.
Entering the season, which is slated to start with participation Aug. 27-28 in a tournament at Independence hosted by William Chrisman High, Chillicothe looks likely to pitch and hit very well. If the overall fielding elevates, as seems very possible, an outstanding season – even one of the best in the strong program’s excellent history – could be in the offing.
“We’re going to bring back a really strong offense,” coach Rucker assessed. “We’ve got some girls that hit the ball really hard and we have some girls that are really quick on the bases.
“… Defensively, that’s the area I want to help us improve the most this year. We focused so much on offense last year and our defense was solid, but there’s little things we can still shore up and get a little bit better at.”
Despite having graduated its unanimous all-MEC pitcher, defending district champ and state runnerup Savannah rates as the biggest threat to displace Chillicothe at the top of the conference standings. Cameron was improved with a young team in 2020, the Chillicothe coach recalled, and could be a dark horse.