Chillicothe (Mo.) High Lady Hornets’ State-Title Diamond Dream Denied

After twice erasing 1-run deficits in state-title duel, fall 3-2 on Blair Oaks walk-off Saturday

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — In a tense, fiercely-contested, and well-played Class 3 state-championship clash Saturday evening between the teams the state’s fastpitch softball coaches association rankings had anticipated meeting, Jefferson City’s Blair Oaks Lady Falcons survived a pair of Chillicothe High School Lady Hornets comebacks and two other scoring threats and used a near-game-ending blast to open the bottom of the seventh and final inning to set up the winning run, which crossed home plate on a bases-loaded, no-outs walk..

On a borderline checked-swing call which produced what might have been an inevitable conclusion anyway, pinch-hitting BOHS senior Macee Ernst was ruled by a base umpire behind second base to have held up on her swing on a 3-1 pitch that the home plate umpire had ruled missed the strike zone. That made it ball four, forcing home from third base Lady Falcons leadoff batter Kenzie Libbert and giving Blair Oaks a literal 3-2 walk-off triumph.

The outcome, which concluded Chillicothe’s records-shredding season with a 30-5 won-lost mark and Blair Oaks’ at 32-4, followed a tight contest in which the eventual champions twice took 1-run leads and CHS twice erased them – the last time when the Lady Hornets were down to their final out.

After getting even at 1-1 in the fourth on singles by Kinlei Boley and Mika Hibner and Kirsten Dunn’s sinking-line-drive double to center field, Chillicothe came to bat in the top of the seventh having just fallen behind again when Blair Oaks strung together three singles in succession with one out in the home sixth. Grace Boessen’s sharp hit up the middle scored pinch-runner Chesney Luebbering from second to snap the tie.

In the CHS seventh, with one out and behind on the count 0-2, lefthanded-hitting senior leadoff batter Sophia Luetticke sparked hope by racing down the line to beat out her seemingly-routine grounder to the shortstop.

Junior Hope Helton, the Lady Hornets’ record-setting run-production leader as she knocked in 46 runs, then got ahead of the count at 3-1. While she faked a bunt and took strike two, Luetticke stole second base without a throw.

Thinking the full-count pitch was outside the strike zone, Helton took it, but, as she began to take a step toward first base, she heard the umpire instead calling the delivery strike three and the second out.

That shifted the responsibility for keeping Chillicothe’s dream of its first state championship in softball alive to junior pitcher and No. 3 batter Boley, No. 2 on the club in RBI behind Helton with 43.

Going after Blair Oaks pitching ace Andy Siebeneck’s first pitch of the at-bat, Boley sent a line drive well over the head of the Lady Falcons shortstop into left-center field. Luetticke scored without a throw and Boley pulled up at first as the nearby dugout full of Lady Hornets and the many CHS fans on hand erupted in ecstasy.

After Siebeneck earned her ninth strikeout of the game to strand Boley, Chillicothe fielders returned to the Killian Softball Complex stadium field they hadn’t been sure they’d again populate, hoping to force the game to extra innings.

That hope came within perhaps an inch or two end disappearing when Boley made her first pitch of the bottom of the seventh.

The righthanded-swinging Libbert, as several of her teammates had done in the previous couple of innings, made very solid contact on Boley’s pitch, but she had the right timing. Whereas her teammates had pulled hard-hit balls foul down the left-field line, Libbert – previously zero for three, but with the game’s first run driven in when Dunn retired her with a spectacular play up the middle in the BOHS third – waited just long enough for her drive to sail deep to straightaway left field, far behind CHS freshman outfielder Tori Stoner.

Her blow also had greater elevation and carried back and back toward the wall. Finally, as it reached the approximately 6- or 7-feet high fence, its trajectory brought down literally on the top edge of the barrier. To Chillicothe’s momentary great fortune, the ball also had partially caught the field-facing side of the fence, popping it back up into the air and down to the outfield grass, rather then bouncing on over for a game- and season-ending home run.

As Stoner hurried the ball back to the infield, Libbert pulled into second base, bearing the potential winning run.

With lefthanded-hitting Kadence Kliegel, who had repeatedly either bunted at or poked softly at Boley pitches in her first three plate appearances, up next, the clear strategic expectation was that the batter would be a clear threat to bunt.

Despite that, when she squared around to hold the bat over the plate as Boley strode into her delivery, the Lady Hornets were not overly-aggressive with a charge to the plate by the corner infielders. As a result, when Kliegel contacted the ball and pushed it softly perhaps 12-15 feet up the third-base line in textbook execution, she was able to get nearly halfway to first base and Libbert more than 40 feet toward third before the ball was picked up. While a quick, strong, and accurate throw to first base might still have nipped Kliegel, but, rather than risk an off-line or low throw getting away and letting Libbert dash home, the ball was held and Chillicothe missed a chance to get an important, proffered out.

That made it virtually mandatory for the CHS head coach to intentionally walk No. 3 batter Siebeneck – hitless, but having lined out hard to a stuck-in-the-mud, falling Stoner her last time up – to create a force-play situation at home plate or, more hopefully, a chance for a home-to-first or third double play on a ground ball back to Boley.

Ernst was sent up to pinch-hit for Luebbering, who had remained in the game playing left field after pinch-running for original cleanup batter Anna Hankins a second time after Hankins had begun the sixth-inning rally by stroking her second hit of the game into right field. Hankins had used her one re-entry after Luebbering had subbed for her on the bases in the fourth, as well.

Having had only 43 official at-bats and a .233 batting average in her team’s 34 games prior to Saturday’s state semifinal and final, Ernst watched three of the first four pitches to her miss the strike zone.

On the fifth, she began a swing that many at a more-advantageous, perpendicular angle viewed as having gone completely across home plate. Unfortunately for Chillicothe, with the plate umpire’s focus having been on judging the pitch to have missed the strike zone and not on how far the bat had traveled, the plate arbiter deferred to the field umpire technically assigned to first base for the swing ruling. However, because of the bases-full situation, that umpire was not on the first-base line, but rather positioned behind second, where – from a longer distance and less-effective comparative viewing angle – his judgment was no swing.

That meant ball four to Ernst, forcing the three baserunners to advance, pushing Libbert home with the game-ending tally.

Blair Oaks began the game’s scoring in the third inning.

It got a booming, leadoff double over center fielder Luetticke’s head by No. 8 batter Bruce, a sacrifice bunt, and Libbert’s hard grounder up the middle that scored Bruce even as Dunn dashed far to her left to snare the ball nearly behind second base. Spinning all the way around as she placed her right foot in the ground, Dunn uncorked a perfect throw to first base to get the batter by less than a half-step.

While down a run after the play, Chillicothe could take heart and hope from the dazzling defensive play, since – had it not been successful – a multi-runs inning might have ensued, considering the next batter walked. With Dunn’s gem, the Nos. 3 and 4 batters for the Jefferson City team would have been coming up with runners at first and second and only one out.

Instead, when Boley followed the first of her uncharacteristic five walks (the last of which was the intentional pass in the seventh) with a strikeout of her counterpart, the Lady Hornets came to bat in the fourth trailing by only one, a deficit they almost immediately erased, but could not then replace with a lead of their own.

Statistically, after a slow start, Chillicothe fared better than its foe offensively, out-hitting Blair Oaks 8-7 and fielding errorlessly, while the eventual winners had two errors.

When Siebeneck set down the first eight CHS batters in order, it meant – combined with the 2011 Lady Hornets’ 2-0 state-title loss to Centralia, Chillicothe had produced only one hit in 9-2/3 innings of title-contest action. CHS’ only hit in the 2011 game was a 1-out single by Sarah Baldwin in the seventh and final inning.

A sharp, first-pitch single by No. 9 batter Jolie Bonderer broke that spell and the Lady Hornets racked up seven more over the final 4-1/3 innings against Blair Oaks.

What the Lady Hornets did not accomplish as well was capitalizing on the opportunities those hits and errors helped engender.

Trailing 1-0 in the fourth and with runners on second and third with one out, only one runner scored when Dunn’s drive squeezed under the diving center fielder’s glove and rolled a short distance behind her on the sodden sod. Although the tying run went on the board, the other runner only made it to third and was left there by a subsequent strikeout and popup.

In the fifth, still knotted at 1-1, a dropped 1-out fly ball put speedy Bonderer on first base. When Luetticke’s soft bunt, as happened the other way in the fateful seventh, was not quickly pounced on, the speedster had a hit and Chillicothe a great chance to get a lead with the meat of its lineup coming up.

Despite Helton’s far-over-.400 batting average and her team-record RBI total, she executed a sacrifice bunt as apparently signaled, being easily retired as Bonderer took third and Luetticke second.

While the larger-than-often amount of foul territory behind home plate enhanced the chances of a runner at third being able to score on a wild pitch, given that Siebeneck and catcher Kally Bruce had rarely, if ever, missed connections during the game, the odds of scoring on a wild pitcher by being at third likely were no better than Helton delivering something that might deliver Bonderer from second or at least fill the bases for Boley with one out.

Instead, Boley stepped in with two outs and a chance to drive in two with one hit. However, as she would do with success in the seventh, the Lady Hornet went after the first pitch, producing an easy pop fly handled by the second baseman for the inning-ending out.

The sixth inning seemingly offered an even-more favorable chance to break the deadlock, but resulted in nothing for CHS

Senior Hibner ripped her second hit up the middle leading off, then barely reached second base in time ahead of the hustling second baseman’s throw after the charging right fielder’s diving attempt to catch Dunn’s looper missed connections.

With two on and none out, but the lower part of the lineup coming up and Hibner having below-average speed at second, coach Rucker eschewed trying to bunt the runners up and, if successful, possibly home. Letting the batters swing away, he could only watch as a pair of strikeouts sandwiched an easy fly out to right and stranded two baserunners for a third inning in succession.

Chillicothe played for the championship as a result of their weather-delayed, 3-1 semifinals victory over Perryville on the Killian complex’s No. 1 ancillary field late Saturday morning and early afternoon.

Originally due to be played the previous afternoon, but precluded from that by persistent rain that backed up the 5-classifications semifinals and finals schedule that was due to start Thursday, the Lady Hornets reached 29 triumphs for the first time in the program’s 26-seasons history in come-from-behind manner.

First, they countered a “soft” Lady Pirates run in the top of the first inning with a balancing tally scored by Bonderer after her leadoff triple in the third. Luetticke’s hard-hit grounder that was speared by the lunging first baseman just behind the bag brought the equalizer in.

When Bonderer, who ended the season swinging perhaps the club’s best bat, pounded another drive into the soppy, muddy, left-center field gap for a double to commence the home fifth, the Lady Hornets had an opening they almost didn’t exploit.

Luetticke popped up trying to bunt for a hit and Helton launched a deep, high fly to right-center. The Perryville center fielder clomped through the spongy ground to get to it, but, with the slippery footing, had the ball go in and out of her glove for a forgivable, but costly, error.

Having tagged up, Bonderer dashed for third as soon as the ball hit outfielder’s leather. Had the catch been made, but the throw to the infield been momentarily impeded by the center fielder’s poor traction, head coach/third-base coach Rucker might well have been tempted to try to score the fast baserunner on the play. Instead, the drop let Bonderer round third and score easily even as Helton strolled into second base.

Boley followed with a sharp, ground-ball hit into left field, where the wet grass and saturated ground beneath gave the left fielder no realistic chance to throw out Helton trying to score, although she did try, letting Boley continue on to second.

The potential for a huge inning for CHS didn’t pan out as a strikeout and fly out left Boley at second, but the Lady Hornets pitcher already had what she needed to deliver the victory and title-game berth.

Perryville (16-14) had consecutive batters reach with one out in the top of the first, setting up its run that scored while the fourth Lady Pirates batter was being thrown out on a ground ball.

Beginning with that play, however, it would solve the CHS righthander only once more the rest of the way.

Boley (22-4), setting a new team pitching record for wins in a season with the semifinal decision, retired eight in a row, starting with that run-scoring grounder. Then, after the same PHS batter who’d doubled in the first to activate that threat hit a sharp single into left off the glove of third baseman Halle Rucker to open the fourth, Boley set down the last 12 batters from the eastern Missouri foe in consecutive fashion.

Backed by errorless defense, she ended the game with a 3-hitter with 12 strikeouts and no bases on balls. She threw strikes or drew swings on 60 of her minuscule 76 pitches needed to go the route.

The Lady Hornets posted their three runs with help from only four hits, although they did receive three walks and a hit batter.

At the same time as the Lady Hornets were handling Perryville, on a nearby field, Blair Oaks was earning a 4-0 win over defending champion Sullivan.