The Hillsboro varsity softball team won another district championship on Friday, defeating Windsor on its home field, 4-0. Winning a district championship never gets old, but one could almost sense that this one was expected. Why? It wasn’t the caliber of the opponents…both Festus and Windsor played extremely well. It was the confidence with which the Hawks played. It was the way the team dealt with adverse situations. It was like they had been through this before, which obviously they had, since they won the title last year as well.
“I think some of that comes from playing the type of schedule we have,” head coach Kevin Lucas said. The Hawks play bigger schools and traditionally strong softball programs along with the conference schedule. “And also just believing in each other because, if you notice, it was different people each day that stepped up when we needed it.”
After what Hillsboro did last year in making it to the state Final Four, any coach will do everything he or she can to not let the team live in the past. But there is no question the team gained valuable experience, even with the graduation of so many key players. “It’s a very different team,” said Lucas, “but a more balanced lineup. I feel this group has just bought in to what we are trying to do, and they work their butts off for us. They realize what we can accomplish, and will do whatever it takes.”
What it took Friday was patience. The squad faced a determined Windsor team playing in front of its home crowd. The Owls were fired up and knew they had an excellent opportunity to knock off the top seed. After both sides were retired in order in the first inning, and the Owls went down 1-2-3 in the second, the Hawks had a great two-out opportunity in the bottom of the inning. Alanah Dunphy was hit by a pitch, and Nicole Evans drew a walk. Alex Wick walked as well to load the bases, but the Windsor pitcher settled down and got a strikeout to end the threat.
But when things like that happen, good teams and good players don’t let that affect their performance. Elly Eckrich was rock solid in the circle, and came out and struck out the side in the third inning. The Hawks quickly got back in the dugout and went to work offensively. Bailey Shuman got the first hit of the contest, leading off the inning with a single to deep short. Julz Johnson, in a sacrifice bunt situation, was able to bunt safely to reach first. When the throw got away, Shuman sped to third. After a strikeout, Amber Cage importantly put the ball in play, grounding to short. Shuman was able to score, and the Hawks had the only lead they’d need, up 1-0.
But nobody feels comfortable with a one-run lead. The Hawks would have to live with that lead for two and a half innings. And a less experienced squad might allow some aspects of the game to distract them or make them anxious. Not this version of the Hillsboro softball team.
Eckrich mowed down Windsor in the fourth, getting two strikeouts, and a pop up to second baseman Evans. Then, in the fifth, after getting a line out to Shuman in center, Eckrich gave up her first hit of the game that was just out of the reach of Evans. After the second out was recorded on a flyout to left fielder Ryleigh Hindle, the Owls got their second hit, a single to center. Then a wild pitch put two runners in scoring position. But Eckrich, despite going 3-2 on the count to the next hitter, got another strikeout to end the inning.
Eckrich was unflappable. In the top of the sixth, with the Hawks still clinging to a 1-0 lead, and the Windsor dugout shaking with loud screams and encouragement, Eckrich calmly struck out the first batter, got the next batter to ground out to third baseman Cage (nice scoop by first baseman Bartlett), and then retired the next hitter on a grounder back to herself.
The bottom of the sixth was the inning that would break the will of the Windsor Owls. Bartlett led off the inning with a single to center. Cage bunted and reached on an error as pinch runner Sara Stokes advanced to second. Eckrich had a perfect sacrifice bunt that moved the runners over a spot, but then a pop up made it very questionable that the Hawks would be able to extend the lead. However, Evans, orange turf shoes and all, swung at the first pitch she saw and doubled to right field. Stokes scored, Cage scored, and Hillsboro had a much more comfortable 3-0 lead.
“Ellie and Amber getting on base before me really helped,” Evans said after the game. “I knew I had to put the ball in play and score them. I was trying to just breathe and get that timely hit to help the team. I was feeling nervous, but I was trying to remain calm and not stress about it. When I saw the ball fall untouched, it felt really good to know that I helped the team.” Then Evans jokingly added, “Also, I think the orange shoes really had a big impact.” Since the tournament was played on turf, Evans decided to wear her soccer turf shoes, and their bright orange color made her very noticeable. But despite her .346 batting average and 12 runs batted in, Evans admits she can be overlooked by the opposition. “Yes, because I’m so small, people often don’t think I can do much offensively,” she noted. “It feels so good when I prove them wrong like I did today.”
After the Evans hit, with the crowd and Hillsboro dugout still buzzing, Hailey Genge came in to pinch hit and sent a single into left field to score Evans and make it 4-0. That was a huge run, as in the worst case scenario, a grand slam home run would only tie the game. Genge said staying focused was not a problem. “It wasn’t hard to focus at all,” she explained. “I was just focused on making good contact with the ball and continuing the rally. I knew my team was counting on me to drive in runs, and Nikki’s hit was just more motivation for me to get the next big hit.”
Let’s just say the top of the seventh went off without a hitch. Eckrich would throw just five pitches. There was a flyout to Kora King (who played an excellent outfield) in right. Then Evans gobbled up a ground ball at second. The final out was recorded on a bouncer to Dunphy at short. As Bartlett squeezed the ball in her glove at first base to end the game, the celebration, although relatively tame, ensued.
It wasn’t the normal offensive display for the Hawks in this title game…only five hits. Shuman, Johnson, Bartlett, Evans, and Genge had one each. But the story of the game was the pitching of Eckrich. The day before, the sophomore threw 11o pitches in a six inning win over Festus. She struck out 11, but walked four and hit a batter. Friday, she threw only 82 pitches in seven innings. She allowed just two hits, struck out nine, and did allow a baserunner via a walk. Seventy-two percent of her pitches were strikes, she got six flyouts and six groundouts, and she threw first pitch strikes to 17 of the 23 batters she faced.
“Elly was outstanding today, and her defense made some really good plays behind her,” Lucas said. “She was a lot sharper today and didn’t let anything get to her. Once we got that lead, it seemed like she dialed in even more.” Eckrich couldn’t have agreed more. “I was a little more locked into the strike zone today,” she said. “Every game is important, but I was completely mentally ready for this one. I knew I had a job to do and needed to get it done.” She also said that the one run lead didn’t faze her. “I did have some nerves in the beginning of the game, but I just needed to focus on the glove and throw how I know how to throw,” she explained. “Especially with the one run lead, I had to bear down and make sure we kept that lead.”
So the next step in the possible return to state stops in Cape Girardeau. The Cape Notre Dame Bulldogs will host the Hawks in a sectional game on Wednesday at 4:30. The Bulldogs are 26-5, while Hillsboro comes into the game at 20-9. “Cape Notre Dame is a very good team, and we have to go to their place, so that makes it a little tougher,” Coach Lucas pointed out. “We just have to continue to play our game and see what happens.”
Lucas said the team will treat this game like a regular season contest. “We have today (Saturday) off, and we get back to work tomorrow (Sunday). We’ll prepare for this game like we do any other…focus on the fundamentals and maybe make a few adjustments based on what I find out about Cape Notre Dame.”
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