Title-coveting softball Lady Hornets await chance in soggy Springfield

(UPDATED 2 a.m. Saturday) Second-ever appearance in state semis, finals Saturday; face Perryville first at 10 a.m.

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
The 2021 Chillicothe High School softball Lady Hornetsk pose after their Oct. 20 11-0 victory at Holden advanced them to the semifinals and finals of Missouri's Class 3 state tournament at Springfield this coming weekend.

(UPDATED at 2 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 30)

By PAUL STURM, C-T  Sports Editor

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — A key factor in who emerges this weekend – hopefully – from the high school softball state semifinals and finals as champions could be who hits Mother Nature’s schedule-wrecking “12-to-6” curveball best.

Widespread rain Wednesday through Friday prevented the Class 4 and 5 state games originally set for Thursday from happening. Their 1-delay caught Chillicothe High School ’s action in the backwash as the Missouri State High School Activities Association announced late Thursday afternoon that both the Class 3 semifinal and final (first- and third-place) games involving CHS would occur Saturday, rather than Friday and potentially Saturday.

While the ill-timed, long-lasting stretch of wet weather that eventually continued to some degree into late Friday afternoon at Springfield, the revised schedule for that day was able to be completed, albeit running about an hour late.

A last shower very late Friday afternoon led to a second, minor revision of Saturday's concluding day of the state semifinals and finals for all five classifications.

Under the latest alteration, Chillicothe’s semifinal game against Perryville – originally for Friday at 2 p.m. and then shifted to Saturday at 10 a.m., now is due to begin at 11 a.m. Saturday on one of the “outer” fields at the original tourney site – the Killian Softball Complex, MSHSAA announced on its website Friday evening.

Also pushed back an hour Saturday are the Class 3 championship and third-place games, one of which will involve CHS.

If the Lady Hornets (28-4) defeat Perryville at midday, they'll face either Jefferson City: Oaks (30-4) or defending champ Sullivan (26-9) on the Killian complex’s stadium field Saturday at 5 p.m., rather than the previously-revised 4 p.m..

The Sullivan-Blair Oaks semifinal will be played simultaneously with Chillicothe’s on a nearby Killian complex field.If the Lady Hornets – who bused to Springfield at midday Thursday and thus had all of Friday off – fall to Perryville, their third-place game – under the second revision – will be at 3:30 p.m. Saturday on a Killian side field.

(Originally-posted story, edited to adjust time, game-site references)

The “new kids” on the Class 3 high school softball state tournament “block” hope to make a lot of noise at Springfield Saturday.

CHS' Lady Hornets hope to take their program’s second crack at a first state crown 10 years after the first one fell a couple of runs short as they dropped the 2011 title game to Centralia, 2-0.

If one is looking for a positive omen from a Chillicothe perspective, it could be that – in the Lady Hornets’ only other state semifinals and finals appearance in 2011 – the Lady Hornets defeated Sullivan 2-0 in the semifinals before being 1-hit by Centralia in a 2-0 defeat in the title contest.

“Goal accomplished to get to the ‘final four,’” said Lady Hornets second-year head coach Lee Rucker after the Oct. 20 quarterfinals victory at Holden, “but then there’s still one more goal on our list.

“We set (winning) the (Midland Empire Conference) championship, the district championship, (reaching) the ‘final four’ as goals and there’s still one more – to win two games at Springfield.

“We don’t want to just be happy to be there, because, with this good of a team, we have a chance to compete for the whole thing, so we want to go down and give it our best shot.”

Not surprisingly, given their geographic separation – Perryville is in Jefferson County, south of St. Louis about 30-40 miles, the Lady Hornets and Lady Pirates have no common or even once-removed common opponents this season. So, both will go into their meeting largely “flying blind.”

Perhaps the most-pertinent barometer of their respective capabilities – and it’s a paper-thin comparison – is that, in last year’s state tourney, Perryville lost 8-7 to Bowling Green in its quarterfinal game, Bowling Green then fell to Sullivan 4-1 in the semifinals, and Sullivan subsequently took the 2020 crown by a 2-1 margin over the Savannah Lady Savages, who had split with CHS during the season, including a come-from-behind, 1-run win in the district-tournament title game.

Given the lack of “intel,” likely the focus of the fallow week of practices between the quarterfinals and semifinals was on trying to further sharpen Chillicothe’s execution of details of specific situations – bunting, bunt and base-stealing defense, defenses in run-threatening situations (runner at second or third or both), and plenty of batting practice against fast pitches.

Hitting and scoring has not been a problem for Chillicothe during the season to date, although there was a bit of a lull in the latter part, one CHS hopes to have emerged from with its 5-home-runs, 11-runs output against Holden.

Proving that, apparently, “chicks dig the long ball,” the home run binge at Holden was only the latest assault by the 2021 club on the CHS offensive records book. It was the first time ever for the Lady Hornets to bash five in a game and, by raising the team total to 20, equaled the single-season record set by the 2011 state runnersup in one bull rush.

A key to the season-long productivity has been the ability of every batter in the lineup to put the opposing pitcher under strain to make quality pitches on every delivery or risk harm.

“Everybody on our team’s a tough out,” coach Rucker explained after the Holden triumph.

“They all do a great job of putting the ball in play and then it’s just a matter of if it finds holes (in the defense) or not. If you put it in play often enough, you’re going to find holes. … It makes it tough on the other team’s defense and pitcher, because they never get a break. We don’t strike out very often and that’s really important to our success.”

However, as the heavy-hitting 2011 Lady Hornets anticipated and found true, generally runs and even hits are in short supply at Springfield.

While the offense was pulverizing five home runs, 2021 Chillicothe High School softball Lady Hornets junior pitcher Kinlei Boley was firing a 1-hitter in the team's 11-0 victory at Holden in the Missouri Class 3 state-tournament quarterfinals Oct. 20.

Fortunately, while enjoying big offensive numbers through most of the season, the 2021 team also has been very conservative in surrendering runs and hits, largely through the efforts of junior righthanded pitcher Kinlei Boley (21-3).

Among her recent victories have been two perfect games, including a 16-strikeouts masterpiece in the district semifinals over 2020 state runnerup Savannah.

Even the head coach admits to being tempted to take Boley’s pitching for granted.

“It’s funny, after the Savannah game, boy, the bar got really high,” he chuckled on the field at Holden while looking ahead to the trip to Springfield. “In the Kirksville game (district final), I thought maybe she didn’t have her best ‘stuff’ and then I looked at the stats and she threw a complete game in 104 pitches and 73 of them were strikes. So I think maybe I set the bar too high when I expect more than that.

“Talk about just a competitor that goes out and knows how to and get outs – she’s really doing a great job for us right now.”

Over 125 innings pitched to date this season, Boley has allowed only 57 hits and 16 runs – merely 10 earned, while striking out 205 and walking/hitting only 17. Her earned-run average is 0.56.

“I’ve had more stamina throughout the season,” Boley told the C-T following the Holden victory. “… I knew I had to work hard to be where we are now.”

While her handling of the sport’s nuclear role makes it impossible for much of any CHS game’s story line not to emanate from her right arm, the junior notes that her teammates’ support and play remains indispensable to any team or personal glory.

“I couldn’t have done this alone,” she asserted.

A key part of her success is the seamless connection which seems to exist between herself and classmate/catcher Hope Helton. Rarely does Chillicothe surrender “free bases” on wild pitches, passed balls, or stolen bases, thanks to Helton’s agility and steadiness behind the dish.

“Kinlei and I just work really well together,” Helton said after the quarterfinals victory last week.

Ironically, while the critical pitcher-catcher bond is a CHS defensive and overall strength, those two players also are locked in a friendly, mutually-supportive duel for the season-ending lead – and, consequently, new team record – in runs batted in.

After Boley broke the long-time record of 34 with 36 last year, Helton’s 3-runs home run that closed the scoring in the 11-0 blowout at Holden snapped a 43-43 tie she and her batterymate were in after the regular season.

“It has just been super-exciting. A great team,” the junior receiver described the overall team season. As for the RBI title/record “battle,” she shrugged, “… The only reason I’m up there is because my teammates get on base.”

The primary provider of those RBI opportunities for both Helton and Boley, who bat second and third, respectively, in the Chillicothe lineup, has been senior center fielder and leadoff batter Sophia Luetticke.

The 2020 All-Stater, who is a lock to repeat that honor – likely as a first-teamer – in ’21, has obliterated multiple team records (batting average, hits,  runs scored, and more) this fall, hitting about .650.

After the team’s district-title win at home Oct. 16, she hit on the same theme the head coach spoke of, regarding team success, to partially explain her own.

“We are very well-rounded (offensively) and, no matter who’s up to bat, someone’s going to get a hit because we’re so deep in our lineup,” she stated.

In addressing, at that time, the remaining 3-games journey toward a possible state crown, Luetticke stated a perspective which holds true again of the contests at Springfield.

“We’re going to focus on one game at a time,” she said. “… I feel like we can make it all the way.”

Whether this weekend brings the results Chillicothe seeks or not, the Lady Hornets’ superb season and myriad accomplishments will live on for years, perhaps decades.

Coach Rucker believes his team is prepped to take its best shot at winning a first CHS state team title since the 1991 football crown.

“It’s incredibly hard to get to the ‘final four,’” he commented after the club had punched its ticket there. “You have to have some luck, you have to have help, you have to have all the talent. We went into the season and it was one of our goals. We talked about that it’s not a ‘pie in the sky’  kind of goal; it’s a realistic goal for this group, but you have to stay healthy and you have to play well at the right time.

“As coaches, we often talk about not peaking too early or all that – and we played some really good ball in the middle of the season – and you don’t want to stop playing good ball, but you worry about whether we peaked too soon. Then we had the little hiccup at the end of the year with (an extra-innings loss to) Putnam County (ending a 17-games winning streak), which might have been a positive, because we were in some tough spots and made a couple of mistakes and learned from those.

“I think that probably helped us… in the district tournament when we had to grind out a couple of tough (wins). Just kept thinking eventually the bats are going to come back to life and they did (at Holden) at the perfect time.”

As for the players’ perspective on what they’ve done and where they’re headed, junior shortstop Kirsten Dunn, whose 2-homers performance helped lead the way past Holden, likely expressed the collective sentiments very well and succinctly:

“We’re going to the ‘final four’ and I couldn’t ask for anything better.”