Historic CHS state-runnerup softball season saluted

Team shredded program records book; pair receive rare multi-states honor

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Nine members of the 2021 Class 3 Missouri high school softball runnerup Chillicothe Lady Hornets garnered some level of postseason recognition, ranging from multi-state region second-team status to all-Midland Empire Conference honorable mention. Introduced and honored during last Wednesday's team recognition event, those players include, from left, junior Hope Helton, sophomore Hadley Beemer, junior Kirsten Dunn, senior Halle Rucker, juniors Bre Pithan and Kinlei Boley, sophomore Jolie Bonderer, and seniors Sophia Luetticke and Mika Hibner.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

Announcement of unprecedented honors for two members – reflective of both their individual performances and the team’s historic achievements – provided a fitting “walk-off” to the 2021 Chillicothe High School softball season last Wednesday.

During the program’s traditional postseason recognition event in the school’s commons, records-shredding Lady Hornets senior center fielder and leadoff batter Sophia Luetticke and junior pitcher and No. 3 batter Kinlei Boley were announced by head coach Lee Rucker as having been chosen to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association’s all-Region I second team.

That NFCA region encompasses Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota and there is no school-size distinction in the consideration and selection of players, he noted.

It is the first time in the CHS program’s now 26-seasons history that any player has been honored beyond the state level.

Having previously recounted the plethora of conference, district, and state-level honors postseason honors bestowed on the players who powered this season’s Lady Hornets to a state-runnerup finish in Class 2 and the program’s most-remarkable season ever, Rucker prefaced and summarized those salutes with the admonition of how the two are intertwined.

“Individual performance brings team success,” he said, “and team success brings individual recognition.”

The unique honor accorded to Luetticke and Boley aptly reflects the unique season the CHS softball team put together this fall, a sensational showing achieved not “out of the blue,” but under the harsh, often unforgiving, glare of high expectations.

“We knew we had a really good team back,” Rucker recalled the preseason perspective he and the players had. The successes and shortfalls the team had last year “gave us confidence and motivation.”

A quest begun with extremely-lofty aspirations rooted in unrequited hopes-turned-goals a season earlier and met by a group which rose to all of its challenges was celebrated at length during the 2-hours-plus Nov. 17 event.

The 2021 Lady Hornets, returning the bulk of a 2020 squad which arguably was only an inning and a couple of runs away from playing for a state championship:

• Repeated as Midland Empire Conference champions – again in undefeated fashion as they extended their MEC winning streak to 18 straight and outscored their league opponents an astounding 90-3 across the seven 2021 league games;

• Claimed, with tense, 1-run wins in both the semifinals and finals, the Class 3 District 8 crown from a tournament in which half of the eight teams entered were ranked in the top 10 in the state at its start;

• Bombed a program-record five home runs in routing its state-quarterfinals foe/host 11-0; and, finally

• After again claiming victory in only the program’s second-ever state-semifinal game, defeating Perryville 3-1, entered the seventh and final scheduled inning of the state-title battle with Jefferson City: Blair Oaks deadlocked at 2-2 before Blair Oaks earned the title with a run in the bottom of the seventh.

Along the way, the 2021 team accumulated new team and individual statistical records and program “firsts” literally by the dozens. Team records in 15 categories were broken or tied and 10 individual marks.

Among the more-notable team offensive records broken were most victories (30; old record 25), longest winning streak (17 games), most runs (22, done twice), hits (26), batting average (.440), on-base rate (.501), and home runs (five) in a game (not all in the same game), and season-mosts in runs (334), hits (411), and runs batted in (296). This year’s club tied the team record for homers in a season with 20.

Individually, Luetticke looted the records book in eight categories, in most instances surpassing marks she’d claimed for her own a year earlier. She reset the records for batting average (.632, topping her 2020 .568 rate), hits (72; her old record 46), runs scored (66; her old mark 40), doubles (16; old record 12 by Sarah Baldwin), on-base rate (.656), and slugging percentage (.886, old record .811 by Boley).

The senior was not alone in moving to the top of the list in individual stats.

Junior catcher Hope Helton, sandwiched between Luetticke and Boley in the lineup, capitalized on the many run-producing opportunities Luetticke and the very-effective lower part of the lineup presented and the protection the dangerous Boley represented behind her to drive in a record 47 runs, two more than Boley did and 11 more than the record total Boley delivered a year before. Helton used 52 hits, second-most in team history to Luetticke’s 72, and a .464 batting average and .652 slugging rate to do so.

Even as she was replaced on the top line of the RBI and slugging rate record listings, Boley joined the 2021 record-breaking brigade once as a pitcher while also equaling an offensive record.

She technically earned credit for the winning decision as a pitcher 22 times, one more than Baldwin earned in 2008, ’10, and ’11 and Mallory Lowe initially notched as the record in 2006.

On four occasions, Boley started games CHS won, but was removed as pitcher (for rest or because the game was out of hand) before throwing the requisite half or more of the total innings played, or her total could have risen as high as 26.

Among her 22 victories were the first two perfect games of her high school career, the second of those the 1-0 district-semifinals triumph over 2020 state runnerup Savannah.

As a batter, while she bested the prior record in three categories – only to have a ’21 teammate top her, she did draw or accept 18 bases on balls, equaling Baldwin’s team mark.

Beyond the new records those three achieved, four individual statistical categories saw one or more 2021 CHS players also surpass the previous mark.

While teams were permitted (under Missouri State High School Activities Association rules) to play more games this season than in prior years and the weather caused only one cancellation, the margins by which many of the previous standards were eclipsed were so great that, even without the extra games played, many likely would have fallen.

And, Rucker disclosed as he ended his summary of records, Chillicothe broke two state team records – most hits in a season with 411 and most singles with 297.

Additionally, Luetticke’s 72 hits and 66 runs are second-most in the state listings, as is the team’s total bases count (577). The 26 hits against Savannah during the Chillicothe tourney are tied for second-most ever in the MSHSAA listings.

Season highlights, beyond those already noted, also included performing well in all three regular-season tournaments, playing well (three wins in five tries) in their first appearance in the season-opening Greater Kansas City Suburban Tournament and capturing the crowns of the Putnam County (by a composite 46-2 margin in four games) and Chillicothe (outscoring four opponents 59-17) events.

“Those were fun days when the bats were on fire,” the head coach noted of the last two.

In addition to the NFCA all-region honor for Boley and Luetticke, CHS had an unprecedented five players accorded Missouri Fastpitch Coaches Association All-State status. Junior infielder Kirsten Dunn joined classmates Helton (catcher) and Boley and senior Luetticke on the first team, while junior second baseman Bre Pithan was chosen second team.

Despite the multiple other outstanding teams involved, eight Lady Hornets were on the all-District 8 team with the five All-Staters being first team and seniors Halle Rucker and Mika Hibner and sophomore Jolie Bonderer being second team.

On the conference level, Chillicothe’s overwhelming dominance – it shut out each of its last six foes – was appropriately honored with all nine regular members of the batting lineup – the eight all-district choices plus sophomore extra hitter Hadley Beemer – selected. That was previously reported.

“That’s what it takes (to succeed) in team sports is a whole group,” coach Rucker remarked, after noting many team members have been playing the sport much of their lives with hundreds or thousands of hours and/or dollars of support from their parents and families.

The parents and players, along with lone manager Kenzie Reynolds, led the lengthy list of persons and groups coach Rucker thanked in leading off his remarks.

With six of the 10 (including non-batting freshman left fielder Tori Stoner) starters from this year’s team due back in 2022 and this year’s junior-varsity team having gone 11-6-1 – “a really-successful year,” in assistant coach Canaan Fairley’s view, he said, the potential for a continued high, high level of achievement exists,

Matching this season’s records-smashing performance will not be easy and might not even be possible, but, by way of a silver lining, the near-miss in the quest for a first-ever CHS state title might be just the fuel needed to fire a more-senior-dominated edition over the top next fall.