It all started with a bunt.
Goose eggs were all that were on the line score for the first four and a half innings of Thursday’s district semifinal softball game at Windsor High School. Neither Hillsboro nor Festus could cross the plate, even though both teams had chances. And then Ryleigh Hindle stepped to the plate. Hindle is the number nine hitter in the Hawks’ lineup, but she led off in the bottom of the fifth of a scoreless game. She’s hitting .317, plays a nice left field, and has good speed, but she’s probably not someone that most people would point to as a game changer.
But she was on Thursday.
She led off the fifth with a perfect bunt that placed her safely at first. Eleven batters (including herself again) followed her to the plate as Hillsboro scored eight runs to put the game out of reach. “Leading off, you can’t stop to think about it or else you’ll stress yourself out,” she said after the game. “As for my bunt, it wouldn’t have mattered as much if I didn’t have my team there to help drive me around and keep us going.”
The Hawks ended the game with 11 hits, but up to that point, they had mustered just four against Festus pitching. The usually potent offense had been held down, stranding five runners through four innings. “Early on, I think we did a pretty good job of getting runners on, but just couldn’t get that timely hit to score runs,” said head coach Kevin Lucas. Thankfully, Elly Eckrich was pitching, and while pitching in and out of trouble in the first four innings, she allowed just one hit. She did walk three, but stranded four runners without allowing a run.
So when Hindle reached first in the fifth, it started an avalanche of five hits and eight runs that buried the Tigers. Bailey Shuman sacrificed Hindle to second, and then Julz Johnson had a senior moment (her class standing, not her age), as she came through with a double to center field to score Hindle and give the Hawks a 1-0 lead. Johnson, who was a big part of last year’s team that finished fourth at state, said she was ready for the moment. “I was very confident,” she admitted. “I knew I had to step up and get a good hit to have a chance at getting the runner in. I walked up to the plate knowing I was going to hit the ball.” And the next batter, Ellie Bartlett, was probably knowing she would hit it too.
Bartlett took the third pitch she saw and hit a laser shot over the left field fence and lifted her team to a 3-0 lead. “Julz getting on base in front of me and breaking the slump we were all in really started us off,” Bartlett noted later. “After she opened the way, I knew I had to get a long ball to at least move her over to get something going. Coach Lucas was telling me to keep everything going together, and that’s exactly what happened. We busted open to score many more after our hits.”
To keep the pressure on, Amber Cage hit the very next pitch into right field for a double. After a fly out, Alanah Dunphy hit a line drive to left field and just switched places with Cage at second, making it 4-0. Then a Nicole Evans grounder was misplayed allowing Dunphy to score, making it 5-0. After pinch hitter Hailey Genge walked, Hindle came up for the second time in the inning and walked as well. However, the final pitch got away from the catcher, and Evans sped home with the sixth run of the inning. Finally, Shuman put an exclamation mark on the inning when she tripled home Genge and Hindle making the score 8-0, as the inning came to a close when the next hitter was retired.
Lucas said a little meeting before the inning lightened the mood. “Going into the fifth inning, I tried to tell the girls to just relax, and I even got them to laugh a little in our huddle before our at bat,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that’s what caused us to break out, but it was good to see some girls really step it up with some big hits. After Julz drove in the first run, you could kind of see everyone relax a little more.”
Eckrich had been sitting for quite some time while her team was racking up the runs. The first pitch she threw in the top of the sixth was rocketed into right for a double. Then she hit the next batter. She also proceeded to throw two wild pitches, the second one scoring the Tigers’ only run of the ballgame. She walked the next batter which prompted a meeting in the circle with Coach Lucas. There wasn’t much doubt that the long inning played a part in the slow start in her return to the game. “It did affect me,” she admitted, “but I made sure to keep my arm warm and loose throughout the long inning. The team was really there on offense tonight, which was great and really helped me out.”
After the meeting, she retired the next three batters, two on strikes, and the Tigers wouldn’t get a chance to threaten again. Meanwhile, the bottom half of the sixth is where the Hawks would shut the door, lock it, and put the Tigers away for good.
Festus would not retire a batter in the inning. Three straight walks to Bartlett, Cage, and Eckrich loaded the bases. The Tigers changed pitchers, and Dunphy, who has been an RBI machine all season, cleared the bases and ended the game with a double to left field. “It felt really good ending the game with my hit, especially in districts when there is a lot more pressure on us,” Dunphy pointed out. Dunphy was the starting shortstop on last year’s team, but didn’t get the opportunity to hit much. She’s made the most of it this fall, and her state experience shows in pressure situations. “I actually don’t really feel the pressure as much because of how far we went last year,” she said. “A little pressure is always good. But I try to play every game the same and stay relaxed so I can do my best.”
Dunphy led the team with three hits and four RBI. That gives her a team leading 29 RBIs this season. Her .412 batting average is second among regulars. Shuman and Bartlett each had two hits and two RBI, while Johnson (RBI), Cage, Evans, and Hindle each had one hit. Eckrich went six innings allowing just three hits. She struck out 11 and walked four. Eckrich struck out every batter in the Festus lineup except for one. “Elly did a great job pitching, and our defense made some really nice plays behind her,” Lucas said. The Hawks were errorless in the field behind their pitcher.
So another district title is within reach this afternoon as the Hawks take on the Windsor Owls, 10-6 winners over Notre Dame last night. Back on October 7, the two teams were locked in a classic battle that saw Nicole Evans single in two runs in the ninth inning to provide the winning margin for Hillsboro in a 2-1 victory over the Owls.