SALINA — Danica Fitzmorris hopes her McPherson High softball team can follow the Augusta blueprint.
A year ago, the Orioles lost in the state finals to DeSoto. Emotionally driven by the near-miss, they pounded their way to three straight wins in the Class 4A Division I State Tournament, including an 11-5 victory over Fitzmorris’ Bullpups in Friday afternoon's finals in what was the rubber game between the teams as they had split a regular-season twinbill.
With seven of her nine starters back next year, Fitzmorris hopes the 2015 Bullpups can be the 2014 Orioles, who brought home the school’s third state title.
The championship game for the Bullpups was the polar opposite of their scintillating 4-3 semifinal victory over Louisburg as the game ended when MHS pitcher Madison Hoffman tagged out the Wildcats’ Ellie Walter at home to end the game after a wild pitch.
Augusta took advantage of a powerful offense and an MHS defense that leaked oil to score 11 runs in the first four innings. The Bullpups showed some grit, however, as Hoffman’s two-run homer extended the game in the fifth and it wound up going the distance.
Thus the Bullpups’ dream season ended up one victory short, but Fitzmorris will take away a lot of positives from the best finish in school history as they had never even been to state since the program’s inception in 1987.
“Good-hitting team,” Fitzmorris said of Augusta, with a tinge of crack in her voice. “And ours didn’t show up as well as I wanted them to. We had some nice hits, a couple of home runs. We just didn’t have people on.”
The loss dashed what was a heroic effort by the gritty Hoffman. She had pitched all seven innings on Thursday in the opening-round win over Wamego, then pitched four innings in relief today to earn the victory against Louisburg. Fitzmorris asked her junior hurler to give her what she had left against the slugging Orioles, but unfortunately her arm wearied and Augusta hit a pair of early two-run homers. With six errors behind her, she was forced to throw many more pitches than she should have.
Fitzmorris had a built-in excuse of her team having used up all its emotional energy in the pulsating semifinal win, but she would hear of none of that. She said her team was excited to be in the finals, but admitted Hoffman probably was asked to do too much as there are only so many times her knee-buckling change-up could fool hitters.
MHS did score the game’s final four runs. Like Hoffman, Hannah Marshall went yard and crushed what was believed to be the longest home run of the tournament when she cleared the snow fence and bounced a rocket off the 250-foot fence that was out of play.
Chelsey Kerr, who probably finished with one of the state’s best batting averages as she was over .500, went 3 for 4, while Hoffman and Marshall added two hits apiece. Kylie Westbrooks was 4 for 5 for the O’s, while Casady Marinee and Morgan Kirk hit homers in each of the first two innings. Megan Hayes pitched seven effective innings, changing speeds well though she rarely struck any Bullpups out.
“It was awesome,” Fitzmorris said of the 18-7 season as few around the state ever expected the Bullpups to get this far. “These girls fought hard all year long.”
• McPherson 4, Louisburg 3 — Hoffman didn’t know and she didn’t care.
Louisburg had just scored a run in the top of the seventh to pull within 4-3. With two outs and Walter at third, Hoffman uncorked a wild pitch, but she charged the plate and received the throw from Jasmine Wann to tag out Walter to end the game.
“I don’t know,” Hoffman said when asked if she thought Walter was out. “I don't care. I’m just glad it ended the game.”
A fan who was video taping the game right at the fence had a great angle of the play and it did indeed look like Walter was out, due greatly to Hoffman’s foot blocking the plate.
Ashley Boles’ second-inning solo homer gave the Wildcats a 1-0 lead that stood up until the fourth when Stephanie Farney delivered a two-out RBI single to score Marshall. An inning later, Kerr hit a parabola over the center field fence that seemed suspended in the air forever, which also scored Marissa Axleson for a 3-1 lead. After Louisburg sliced it to 3-2 in the sixth, the Bullpups tacked on what proved to be an important run on a groundout by Axelson that scored Hoffman.
The seventh inning produced a week’s worth of drama, but Hoffman performed her magic for another escape and the play at the plate left the Louisburg faction quite heated, including coach Kristi Wears who was obviously incensed.
“Honestly I didn’t even see the ball until Maddy held it up in the air,” Fitzmorris said. “That’s an umpire’s call. I can’t make that call. It was a tough ending for them.”
Fitzmorris said her team overcame a slow start against Wildcat ace Mackenzie Cannon, who had struck out 12 the day before but whiffed just one Bullpup.
“We were tight at the plate for a while,” she said. “Once we scored, we kind of loosened up. We finally started to get on top of the ball.”
Kerr’s seventh homer of the year obviously turned the game in MHS’ favor.
“I was kind of looking for the inside pitch. I like the inside a lot,” Kerr said. “You got to get on top of the ball and in front of the box. I just thought it was a pop fly, honestly. But I guess the little bit of wind carried it, enough to get it out. I was glad to help the team.”
Fitzmorris turned to Elle Schrag to start the game and she allowed just one run in three innings to give the Bullpups just what they wanted. Hoffman then came on in the fourth and allowed two runs in her four innings.
Fitzmorris can hardly wait until next year. Starters Axelson and Nicole Cheek certainly will be missed, but the core of the offense that scored in double digits in nearly half the games this year returns intact, along with the top two pitchers.
MHS (4) — Hoffman 3-1-0-0, Axleson 4-1-2-1, Kerr 3-1-2-2, Wann 3-0-1-0, Marshall 1-1-0-0, Feil 2-0-0-0, Cheek 3-0-0-0, Farney 3-0-1-1, B. Schrag 2-0-0-0, Stockham 0-0-0-0, E Schrag 0-0-0-0.
MHS (5) —Hoffman 4-1-2-1, Axelson 3-1-0-0, Kerr 4-0-3-1, Wann 3-0-0-1, Marshall 4-1-2-1, Feil 3-0-0-0, Cheek 3-0-1-0, Farney 3-1-0-0, B. Schrag 3-1-1-0, Stockham 0-0-0-0.