Between innings of Wednesday’s district softball semifinal game at Hillsboro, Hawks’ assistant coach Tish Naeger was overheard telling a player, “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be fun.” Well, Hillsboro’s 5-4 extra inning win over Windsor certainly wasn’t easy. But a poll of Hawks’ fans might find that they didn’t have a great deal of fun…at least until the end. The stress levels were off the board last night, nevertheless, Hillsboro will be playing for a district championship this afternoon, taking on the upset-minded DeSoto Dragons in a winner-take-all contest.
How the Hawks got to this point was crazy and wild. The Hawks, the #2 seed, started the game as badly as they could imagine against the #3 seed Owls. After a groundout, pitcher Emma Nichols hit a batter. Then a two-base error put runners at second and third. Yet another error plated the first run of the game, and as the Hawks were trying to gather themselves, a second run scored. After another ground out, Windsor got its first hit, a single, and just like that, the Owls were up 3-0 without Hillsboro stepping to the plate yet.
The bottom half of the first didn’t make Hawks fans feel any better. With one out, Nichols doubled, and moved to third on a Kelsey Boyd base hit. Emily Mudd walked to load the bases. Then Amber Cage hit a sharp grounder to third. The third baseman fielded it, tagged out Nichols, and then retired Boyd coming to third, and the Hawks returned to the field without scoring a run.
Needless to say, the Windsor dugout was loud and happy as it was clear they had momentum. Nichols retired them in the second, and the Hawks actually took back a little of that momentum in the bottom of the second. With one out, Hailey Genge singled. After the second out, Reagan Short singled to center to put runners at first and second. Bailey Shuman (remember that name) delivered a base hit to center, scoring Genge, but Shuman was thrown out at second trying to stretch the hit into a double. The Hawks were now within two runs heading to the third inning.
But that didn’t last long. Windsor made it 4-1 with a run that scored on a passed ball. It could have been much worse, but with two outs and a runner on second, a Windsor hitter singled up the middle. Center fielder Reagan Short came up firing and made a good throw to catcher Julianna Johnson. Johnson stayed with the short hop and made the tag on the runner to keep the deficit at three runs. That was such a huge play, as the Owls would not cross the plate again the rest of the game. “Reagan’s throw to Julz was a great play on both ends, and not something you see a lot out of high school players,” said head coach Kevin Lucas. “For Reagan to put the throw on the money, and Julz to be able to catch it and make the tag just shows the focus they both had on that play. Looking back on that play and how the rest of the game went, they cut down the winning run at the plate more or less.”
But Hillsboro had work to do. The team stranded two runners in the third inning. But in the bottom of the fourth, the Hawks finally broke through. Genge started things off with a ringing double to to center. Jensen Knudtson followed with an infield single as Genge advanced to third. Short came through with a single to center, scoring Genge and moving Knudtson to third. Shuman grounded to second to score Knudtson, and Boyd singled to right-center to plate Short. All of a sudden, it was a new ballgame, as the score was knotted at 4-4.
From that point, there were a bunch of missed opportunities, and a little controversy. Windsor stranded a runner in the fifth, and another in the sixth. The sixth inning featured about a 15 minute delay, as there was a question about a substitution rule. The players tried to stay loose while the umpires and coaches tried to clarify the rule. Finally, when play resumed, the Windsor batter in question hit the first pitch for a double. Thankfully for the Hawks sake, she was stranded right there.
The bottom of the sixth saw more drama. With two out, Shuman reached on a base hit and sped to third on a single by Nichols. Boyd was walked intentionally, but Mudd struck out. The ball got away from the catcher, and for a while, there was some question about whether an out was actually recorded since runners were circling the bases. When order was restored, the game was still tied.
Windsor came back in the seventh and got a runner to third, but couldn’t push across a run. Hillsboro was retired 1-2-3, and it was time for extra innings. In the eighth, Hillsboro’s fielding woes almost came back to haunt them. Two errors put runners at first and second, but Nichols coaxed an infield fly and then another pop up to end the frame.
So the Hawks came into the bottom half of the eighth with a renewed sense of purpose. Makayla Stokes pinch hit for Knudtson, and her grounder to third was misplayed. Knudtson then came back in to run. In pressure situations, errors seem to be contagious, and they were this time for the Owls. The next batter, Short, sent a grounder to second which was booted. Now there were runners on first and second with nobody out. The batting order came back up to the top with Shuman coming to the plate, and the dangerous Nichols on deck. As Shuman stepped to the plate, she tried to put her emotions aside.
“I was trying to stay as relaxed as I could,” she remembered. “I knew I had a runner on second, and they did their job to get on, so I had to do something to bring her in. Coach Lucas told us to have an approach when coming up to the plate. We worked a lot in practice on bringing the runners in so we wouldn’t leave them stranded on the bases. My approach was to hit it up the middle or the right side.”
That’s exactly what she did. The ball went right up the middle into center field. The crowd was going crazy, and Knudtson churned around third and headed for home. “When I hit the ball right where I wanted, I hoped it would bring her in,” said Shuman. “When I got to second, I realized the run scored and the whole team ran out to congratulate me. It was such an amazing feeling knowing we were not done yet, and I can’t wait for the team to compete for the championship.”
Obviously, everyone was ecstatic, but Coach Lucas was especially happy for his left fielder. “Bailey had a great night and has done some very good things for us this season. For her to step up and get that hit was awesome. She’s a very quiet kid, so it was great to see her get to celebrate with the team.”
Lucas is more than happy to be playing today, but he knows the Hawks had some good fortune. “I think we are very fortunate to still be playing. But I’m also very pleased with how we didn’t just roll over and quit. They showed some real heart to hang in there and battle until the very end.” And he also had major kudos for his pitcher, Nichols, who was rock solid after the third inning. “Emma really showed what kind of competitor she is by keeping them in check and allowing us to stay in the game until we could get things going. She didn’t let that first inning get to her, and did a great job not letting the other girls get down.” When asked if anything changed after the team fell behind, Lucas said he handed things over to his battery. “Before the game we had decided that I would call the pitches to take some pressure off of her and Julz. Well, that didn’t work, so I went back to them calling them.”
Why did Lucas feel fortunate to be advancing? Hillsboro committed six errors, and none of the runs Nichols gave up were earned. She did strike out seven and walked no one, while allowing seven hits. Offensively, the Hawks banged out 14 hits, but stranded nine runners. Shuman and Boyd led the way with three hits each. Shuman drove in three runs, and Boyd, one. Nichols, Short and Genge had two hits each. Genge scored two runs, and Short drove in one. Knudtson and Mudd had the other two hits. Knudtson scored two runs.
After the game, Lucas said his team knew the situation. “After the game, I think there was relief and excitement. We knew we were lucky to be moving on, but also very excited since this is why we work hard all season and play the type of schedule we play.”
Standing in the way of a district title is a familiar foe in the DeSoto Dragons. DeSoto is the #5 seed…the lowest seed in the tournament. The Dragons won two games last night, defeating North County in extra innings, 10-8, and then upsetting the #1 seed Festus Tigers 12-3 to advance to today’s game. DeSoto is 16-11, while the Hawks are 18-9. Game time at Hillsboro High School is at 4:30 p.m. MSHSAA has set the price of admission at $5.