Top-seeded Chillicothe (Mo.) HS Softball Lady Hornets Take District Crown, State Berth
Rally to nip second seed Kirksville 2-1 Saturday (Oct. 16). WIll play at Holden in Class 3 state quarterfinals Wenesday (Oct. 20)
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
Facing an opponent which twice in the preceding three years had ended their bid to claim a district championship and advance to state play, the Chillicothe High School softball Lady Hornets had extra incentive and motivation in their bid Saturday to capture the 2021 Class 3 District 8 tournament title at the expense of the Kirksville Lady Tigers.
Their poise and focus tested by Kirksville scoring the game’s first run in the top of the third inning, the Lady Hornets capitalized on the one defensive mistake their foe made to pull even in the fourth and then packaged a leadoff double, bloop single, and sacrifice fly in the bottom of the fifth to gain the upper hand and, ultimately, post a 2-1 victory which secured their program’s first district title and state-tourney appearance since 2016.
“We were fortunate enough to get enough hits and push a run across and get one in on a sac fly – execute the thing we need to do to win a close ballgame,” Lee Rucker, second-year CHS head coach, reflected following the victory.
“We had a little bit of a revenge factor going,” Mika Hibner, Chillicothe senior first baseman-catcher, confirmed, unknowingly echoing her head coach.
“… Our freshman and sophomore years, we played Kirksville and lost to them in the district championship (game). We’ve been here three (previous) times and I think it was finally our time to win and keep going and we executed.”
A leadoff walk to eventual winning pitcher Kinlei Boley, a throwing error on a sacrifice bunt by cleanup Hibner, and Bre Pithan’s game-tying, safety-squeeze bunt hit eased the pressure in the CHS fourth, balancing the earlier KHS run.
“That got us some momentum and put them on their heels just a little bit,” coach Rucker said of the importance of getting the game tied following the Kirksville misplay.
Then, record-breaking leadoff batter Sophia Luetticke lashed a 1-out double to right-center field in the Chillicothe fifth. She took third when Hope Helton’s blooper into the wind in short right field didn’t hang up long enough for the right fielder to get in to it, and strolled home when Boley’s bid for a 3-runs home run to center field also was buffeted by the westerly wind blowing across the hill-perched Daryl Danner Memorial Park “red” field, reducing it to a lead-claiming sacrifice fly.
“I feel like our team handled adversity very well,” catalyst Luetticke asserted. “We are very well-rounded and, no matter who’s up to bat, someone’s going to get a hit because we’re so deep in our lineup.”
That single-run lead was threatened in each of the last two Kirksville offensive innings.
In the top of the sixth, a play ruled an infield hit and an error with one out was negated by Boley handling a comebacker and, after an intentional walk of KHS pitcher/cleanup batter Sophie Stuart, an inning-ending strikeout.
Then, in the seventh, a lunging, diving, backhanded stab off the dirt-top of a leadoff line drive by shortstop Kirsten Dunn grew in importance when the next Kirksville batter dunked a hit into shallow center field. A well-placed bunt on which third baseman Halle Rucker had to make a good play and strong throw to second baseman Pithan to get the out advanced Maron Behne to second with two outs, but could only watch from there as Boley jumped ahead of the next batter 0-2 and then fanned her on a 1-2 delivery to set off the Chillicothe celebration.
“Those ‘little’ things become really big at this time of year and defense becomes really big,” coach Rucker remarked. “Pitching and defense are huge and we had a few really good plays today that kept their (batters) off the bases.”
He said the tough lessons learned and experience gained in the 2020 postseason, as well as in the challenging, season-opening tournament this year, paid dividends when the team faced adversity Saturday.
“They were really calm in the dugout,” coach Rucker said of the CHS players. “They were excited to play, yet they stayed calm and they were saying the right things to each other in the dugout to keep their mindsets in the right place, and they were able to pull it off in the end.”
In addition to partially avenging the 2018 and ’19 district-finals losses to Kirksville, the Lady Hornets (28-4) eased the sting of falling a win short of state play last year they saw a lead in the district-championship game against a Savannah team it had previously defeated slipped away in the last couple of innings. Saturday’s battle with the Lady Tigers (22-6-1) was CHS’ sixth-straight appearance in their district’s championship contest, but their first triumph since the 2016 game began that string.
The district crown and companion state-tourney appearance is the 10th in the Chillicothe program’s 26-years history, but only the second in the past 10 years.
“We knew we were right there last year and knew that we had a lot back from that team, so the goals became very high this year, and we’re still striving for those goals,” the Chillicothe coach stated.
“The district championship was one of them and we got that today, so now we start working toward the next one and that’s to get to Springfield (for the state semifinals and finals). The girls believed that they could do it – it wasn’t just a pipe dream – and today they were able to take that step to get to that next level.”
“Our goal was to get where we are and to keep getting farther,” explained Lady Hornets senior Dawsyn Lightner, an off-and-on starter during her career.
Their next challenge will be defeating host Holden in the state quarterfinals this coming Wednesday. Holden, which defeated CHS (which didn’t pitch ace Boley in the game) 11-4 in the final game of the season-opening Greater Kansas City Suburban Invitational in late August, claimed the District 7 crown this past Thursday with a 3-2 win over Pleasant Hill. Chillicothe defeated Pleasant Hill 6-3 in that season-starting tournament, with Boley throwing only 1-1/3 innings in relief in it.
Saturday’s District 8 title game, played under a crystal-clear sky, but with the notable west wind which put some crispness in the approximately-65-degrees fall air, was expected to be close and likely to a pitcher’s duel between Boley and Stuart. It largely played out along those lines.
“This district has just been loaded the last two years,” coach Rucker pointed out. “Last year, there were three state-ranked teams in it; this year, there were four of the top-10-ranked teams in the state.”
While the wind impacted some plays, it largely was a neutral factor – aiding a couple of softly-hit fly balls by each side to drop in front of onrushing outfielders, while also likely costing Boley a home run in the fifth, as her drive that still plated the decisive run was caught – barely – in a very, very good play by the KHS left fielder only a few feet from the 200-feet fence in left-center field.
The two sides generated only nine combined hits off the two All-State-caliber pitchers – five by Kirksville and four by Chillicothe – and drew only one unintentional walk from each.
The game’s first run was the result of speedy, lefty-swinging Lady Tiger Jada Jackson beating out a soft grounder to shortstop to open the top of the third, a sacrifice bunt, and KHS leadoff batter Madison McCarty’s sharp ground-ball single into left field. Any chance of left fielder Tori Stoner throwing the speedy Jackson out at home plate was lost when the ball’s last bounce before reaching the CHS outfielder was higher than before and handcuffed Stoner, causing a slight delay before she could make a throw.
In a key to the eventual outcome, the damage in that inning was limited to that single run, even though the late throw home allowed McCarty to take second uncontested. Following the RBI hit, Boley fielded two balls hit back to her to strand McCarty at third.
Stuart largely tamed CHS batters the first time through the lineup, surrendering only a ground-ball single to Hibner leading off the second inning.
Even though Chillicothe didn’t get any swinging basehits its second time through the order, a Kirksville defensive miscue – just as happened in Chillicothe’s 1-0 win over Kirksville early in the season – helped the Lady Hornets score their first run.
After Boley drew a 4-pitches walk to open the bottom of the fourth, Hibner put down a soft bunt back toward the pitcher on an 0-1 offering. When the ball was thrown toward first, where the second baseman had routinely scurried over to cover the base, it was far wide of the fielder to the foul side and zipped down the right field line in foul ground. By the time the ball was recovered and thrown toward home plate, Boley was at third and Hibner moving into second with no outs.
Dunn then fouled off three 0-2 pitches in a row while trying to bring home at least the tying run, but missed the sixth pitch of the at-bat for the first out.
That put the tall Pithan, not noted as an accomplished bunter, at the dish. Nevertheless, head coach Lee Rucker signaled to her to try to bunt on the first pitch while verbally alerting Boley to be ready to race for the plate if the bunt got down.
Even though the fast Stuart pitch reached the plate barely above ankle level, Pithan made contact with it squarely, deadening the ball as it rebounded along the dirt between the plate, pitcher and third baseman. With Boley making an excellent read of the contact and the bunt’s slow pace to recognize it as a good chance to score, she was just about to start her slide when the third baseman gloved the rolling ball.
Despite that, the fielder started to try to make a throw to the plate, but the catcher – believing there was little chance to retire Boley – had moved a couple of strides in front of the plate, trying to direct her teammate to come up throwing to first to get the batter. When that communication attempt failed, there was no play anywhere and Pithan had a game-tying bunt hit to her credit, a bunt that also moved go-ahead run Hibner into third base with one out.
“We worked on bunting a lot this week and last week, getting ready for districts, because we kept talking about that a squeeze play may determine the outcome of the whole tournament before it’s over with,” related coach Rucker, “and it actually did today.”
Now facing the threat of her side falling behind, Stuart answered the challenge via a popped-up bunt to the first baseman and a strikeout.
Statistically, the game’s nine basehits were equally divided among nine players with Luetticke’s double that put her on base to score the decisive run the only extra-base hit.
Stuart struck out 11 CHS batters, while Boley (20-3) – clearly not as sharp as during her perfect game against Savannah two nights before – whiffed nine Lady Tigers. Each forced the opponent to strand five runners.
“We’ve seen really good pitching here in this district tournament and the week before against Putnam County we saw a really good pitcher and that makes a difference,” coach Rucker explained the recent downturn in offensive production by his team, which was very hot with the bats at midseason.
“We’ve got some really good hitters, but great pitching sometimes neutralizes really good hitters.”
Boley’s tiebreaking sacrifice fly gave her 43 runs batted in for the season, matching Helton’s team-leading and team-record total.
After breaking the program’s long-standing record for hits in a season with 46 last year, Luetticke’s fifth-inning double was her record-shattering 68th of this year, leaving her to enter state play with a stratospheric .660 batting average – about .100 higher than the lofty team mark she established as a junior. That separation assures that she’ll establish a new batting-average team standard this season, since even going hitless in the next 10 at-bats – if she gets that many – would still have her above .600.
Luetticke’s win-producing run scored also was her new-record 63rd, a total which also obliterates the record 40 she had in 2020.
For tough-luck Kirksville, its play throughout the district tourney was the epitome of consistency. It won its first game 2-1 in eight innings, then defeated Macon 2-1 in the semifinals before that identical final count was on the Danner Park scoreboard at the end of the title tilt, only this time with KHS on the short end of the score.
Half of the Lady Tigers’ six losses this season were administered by Chillicothe. A 9-0 CHS victory occurred during the mid-September Putnam County Invitational tourney, a clash in which Boley fired a 2-hits, 5-innings shutout, but Stuart did not appear for KHS.