There’s just no two ways about it…ending a season is never easy unless a team wins a championship. The litany of emotions are overwhelming, especially if the season ends when a victory was just outside a team’s grasp. Such was the case Thursday afternoon in Benton when the Jefferson Blue Jays softball team lost by one run to St. Pius, 3-2 in a district semifinal game.
“We fought hard,” Jays’ head coach Robert Kuehnle said after the game. “The girls played tough, but in the end, someone has to win, and someone has to lose, and today we were on the wrong side.”
This game was so different than the previous meeting on September 24 when Jefferson lost to the Lancers, 9-1. It was a contest that could have gone either way, and almost did. All the scoring occurred in the first three innings, but the final three and a half were full of tension and opportunities.
The Blue Jays opened the scoring in the first inning. Abi Chipps, who played her last game as a Blue Jay, led off with a base hit. Morgan Figliolo reached on a fielder’s choice, putting two on with no out. Chipps and Figliolo executed a double steal, and then Chipps would later steal home to put Jefferson on top, 1-0.
That lead lasted until the bottom of the second when St. Pius loaded the bases and tied it when a batter was hit by a pitch. But, undaunted, Jefferson came back to score in the top of the third. Chipps was in the middle of it again as she grounded a one-out single to center. Figliolo sacrificed her to second, and then Chipps stole third. Catryn Cattoor singled to right and the Blue Jays were back up, 2-1.
Unfortunately, the tying run and eventual winning run crossed the plate in the St. Pius half of the third. Another hit batter scored on a double. After a walk, the two runners advanced on a sacrifice fly. The go-ahead run would score on a dropped third strike. Little did anyone know that that would be the final run to score.
Oh, but there were chances…for both teams. Maggie Brunke led off with a walk in the fourth. She got to third base, but two strikeouts ended the inning. The Lancers stranded two runners in the bottom of the fourth. In the top of the fifth, Chipps drilled a two-out double, her third hit of the game. Figliolo sacrificed her to third, and Cattoor walked, but a groundout ended the threat.
St. Pius stranded a runner in their half of the fifth, and both teams were retired in order in the sixth. With only three outs left to give, the first two batters were retired on strikes to begin the Jefferson seventh. Up stepped Chipps, who was three-for-three already. As she had done more times that folks can count, she gave her team a chance to stay alive by legging out an infield single for her fourth hit of the game. She then stole second, but the Blue Jays just couldn’t find a way to get her home. A strikeout ended the game and the season for the Jays.
The strikeout was something that befuddled Jefferson, as the team either swung at or took strike three 14 times. The only player not to strike out was Chipps. The Jays had five hits…one by Cattoor and four by Chipps. Megan Payne pitched well enough to win for Jefferson. She went the distance allowing just four hits. She struck out three and walked three. Her biggest downfall was the six hit batters, yet, the Blue Jays were in a position to win the contest.
“Both teams played their hearts out, and it was one of the only games I have ever coached where both teams did not make an error,” Coach Kuehnle said. “It was incredible. We’re going to miss our seniors, but I know they’re going to do great things.
Ah…the seniors. Four young ladies donned the Blue Jay uniform for the final time. Rachel Westhoff was one of them. “I’m sad to say it’s over,” she admitted. “Our team had such a great season, and it was a fun ride. I’ve learned so much from this team, and I can truly thank Coach Kuehnle and my teammates for that. I’ll never forget my time on the Jefferson softball team.”
Then there was Nehley Ervin…”I am sad that it’s over, but I have had a great time the past four years,” she confessed. “I am so blessed to have made all these memories and friends throughout softball. This program has taught me not just how to become a better player, but also lessons about my character and work ethic. I have learned and grown so much with all my teammates and coaches, and I will never forget it.”
Joceline Falkengren had much the same to say. “I couldn’t express how much my teammates mean to me, and I know all of them will go on to do great things after I leave. Being a part of this program, I have made so many friendships, and have had so many long lasting memories since I started played in 2016. This experience has been a journey the past four years, and I wouldn’t want to spend it with any other people.”
Lastly, Jefferson will lose an athlete who has rewritten the record books. She holds a plethora of school records, and the day before broke the Missouri state record for singles in a career. What did Abi Chipps have to say as she stepped off the diamond for the final time? “I cannot believe it’s over,” she said. “It’s crazy to look back on all four of my years playing softball at Jefferson. It is going to be very hard walking away from this program, but I can walk away with pride knowing I did the best that I could to create an impact and leave my legacy. I can’t wait to see where this program goes in the next few years.”
Chipps said it was difficult when the final out was recorded. “It was very emotional,” she explained. “It was a very close game that could’ve gone either way. It’s hard to lose games like that, especially if it’s your last one.” But when finally asked about what holding that state record meant to her, the true character of Abi Chipps came out. “I actually didn’t know up until last Wednesday that I was capable of breaking the record! At that point, I was only two away from tying it. I’m glad I didn’t know about it earlier in the season, because I definitely would have over-thought it. But I don’t believe the legacy that I will leave behind will have anything to do with how many hits or stolen bases I had. I hope that I am remembered more for doing my best to create a good and energetic atmosphere. I would also much rather be respected for the type of teammate I am, rather than my stats. This year everyone bought into each other. And a team with great chemistry like this is bound to do great things in the future.”
So the seniors will move on, including Chipps to Indiana State to take her magic to the diamond for the Sycamores. And there’s still talent returning on the squad for next season. And even though the record (12-10) and the finish at the district tournament doesn’t prove it, these girls are champions in more ways than one.