It’s a good bet it won’t be another 27-year wait for McPherson High’s next appearance in the state softball tournament.
MHS finally erased its numbing postseason failures by qualifying for state for the first team and it made the most of its opportunity.
The Bullpups made it to the state title game, where it lost to the powerful-hitting Augusta Orioles, who featured an emotionally driven team that included 11 juniors and seniors who had been denied the state title the previous year by DeSoto in the championship game.
First-year coach Danica Fitzmorris could not have dreamed of a better way to start her career after being on the very first Bullpup team back in 1987.
The Bullpups had to survive a season-ending knee injury to senior sparkplug Kiley Kerr, who played only eight games before tearing her ACL on a freak play. She was the team’s emotional heartbeat, the leadoff hitter who set the table so admirably for the collection of supremely talented run-producing sluggers.
The only two seniors in the lineup were outfielders Marissa Axelson and Nicole Cheek and both will be greatly missed. Axelson had a great state tournament to lift her final average to .302, while Cheek finished at .316. Axelson also flashed some serious leather in center field with a highlight reel of sensational catches.
The Bullpups thus return seven starters and 11 players who took part in the state tourney. Included is the entire infield and the top two starting pitchers, which greatly inflates expectations for next year.
The uber-competitive and unflappable Madison Hoffman turned in a courageous state tournament. She threw a staggering 286 pitches in three games, picking up wins over Wamego and Louisburg. She basically pitched the Augusta game on pure guts and adrenaline.
Hoffman also was a terrific third baseman when she wasn’t pitching and that’s when the Bullpup defense was at its best.
In 99 at-bats this year, Hoffman struck out just once — that’s right, once — and hit .424. She hit homers against both Wamego and Augusta.
Chelsey Kerr hit an insane .518 with seven homers and 31 RBIs. By the time the season ended, she was as slick of shortstop as there was, vacuuming everything that was hit her way. She’s only a sophomore and is a terrific athlete. She could very well be a Division I prospect before all is said and done.
Catcher Jasmine Wann provided a fiery presence with her intensity behind the plate. Wann finished the year with four homers and 23 RBIs, while pounding out a .439 average. How she earned only honorable mention AVCTL was criminal.
First baseman Hannah Marshall, she of the mammoth homer in state championship game, slugged her way to a .381 average and drove in 25 runs. Like the others, the state experience will only serve her to future success.
Hoffman, Kerr, Wann and Marshall will be as feared of a foursome as there is in the state next year.
A key to the Bullpups’ success next year will be the advanced development of the younger players who only got better as the year went along.
Second baseman Gracy Feil moved into the lineup when Kiley Kerr went down and responded with a .348 average. Stephanie Farney hit .327 and was especially clutch, as her 16 hits produced 14 RBIs. Brooke Schrag hit .244, but was a superb bunter and played a solid left field. While Stevie Stockham was on the field for defensive purposes only at state, she displayed a big arm at third base and did hit .271 during the season.
For the Bullpups to fly a banner in the Roundhouse, though, it will come down to pitching. Hoffman was 11-4 with a 3.45 ERA and was far more of a pitcher than a thrower, as she time and again confounded hitters with her knee-buckling change-up. Elle Schrag will return as the No. 2 and was 4-1 with a 3.25 ERA during a fine, get-your-feet-wet freshman season. She figures to log more innings next year so Hoffman won’t have to shoulder so much of the load.
Neither pitcher, however, has overwhelming speed, pitching more to contact and counting on their defense to back them. MHS’ defense for the most part was solid, though it did sometimes cancel out its spectacular plays by not making the routine plays. Championship teams make those routine plays, which the Bullpups didn’t do in the state finals when they made an uncharacteristic six errors.
The Bullpup JVs showed some offensive promise and some of those players will be counted on more importantly next year. It would behoove Fitzmorris, though, to develop some more pitching. I’m sure she’s looking at some of the younger teams this summer and hoping some of those pitchers can improve and get better, so when they arrive at the high school level they are well-versed and can step in immediately.