The Hillsboro Hawks have now returned from their historic softball Final Four experience in Springfield. Each squad member and coach has been able to do something no other person associated with the program has been able to do. And while the games were obviously very important, so was the time the team was able to spend together on this journey. A lot of this article will focus on that.
It was not typical softball weather as the team arrived at the Killian Softball Complex on Friday morning. Mist, wind, and cold temperatures set the start time back by thirty minutes. The Hawks would not only battle the two opponents, but the elements as well.
Opening against the Oak Grove Panthers, Hillsboro would hit first and was the away team on the scoreboard. After the first two batters were retired, Kelsey Boyd doubled to center, but was stranded there.
The Panthers came to the plate and immediately were on the attack. Emma Nichols walked the first batter, and then the next doubled to left, scoring one run. Another run would come in on a base hit. Luckily, the Hawks got out of the inning with a double play and came back to the dugout down 2-0.
Julianna Johnson would drive home the first run of the day as she homered over the center field fence. Johnson had her only two home runs of the season in the quarterfinal and semifinal games. Nichols would keep things in check while her teammates tied the game in the fourth inning. Emily Mudd led off with a single and eventually scored on a wild pitch. The score was knotted at 2-2 heading into the bottom of the fourth.
Oak Grove would surge ahead with two runs in the fourth and one in the fifth. The two runs in the fourth came in on a passed ball and then an error on the throw to the plate. Three consecutive singles plated the run in the fifth, putting the Hawks behind by three runs with only six outs to go.
But the never-say-die attitude that the team had shown all season became very evident in the top of the sixth. Boyd coaxed a walk and then Mudd singled to left. Boyd moved to third on an error by the catcher. After two batters were retired, Amber Cage came up big with a single to center to score Boyd. Mudd and Cage would come home when Jensen Knudtson lifted a ball over the right fielder’s head for a triple. All of a sudden, the game was tied, and the Hawks held all the momentum.
“When we tied it up 5-5, I really thought we were going do what we needed to win,” said head coach Kevin Lucas. Boyd felt the same way. “I thought this was one of our best games this season. We never really got down, and if we did, the other teammates would pick us right back up. I was beyond proud of how our team reacted. I feel like everybody was pretty relaxed during that game, and that’s why we were able to come back so many times.”
Unfortunately, momentum was taken away just as quickly. Oak Grove scored three runs in the sixth, and while the Hawks got the tying run to the plate in the seventh, it just wasn’t meant to be. Oak Grove would advance to the championship game on Saturday, while the Hawks would play about an hour later for third place.
So many of the players thought the semifinal game would end differently. Bailey Shuman said, “Throughout the whole game there was a lot of up and down emotions. We would get down on the scoreboard, and it would be a little scary, and then we would tie it up, and it was so much more relieving. I felt confident that we weren’t going to give up no matter what the outcome was.” Knudtson said the game showed how ready the team was to play on the big stage. “Each time we came back to tie the game, it really just showed us how prepared we were to put up a fight.”
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” said Mudd. “Being able to come back from a deficit is always a good thing, it shows fight. And we showed a lot today. I was very confident that we would come back, having done it twice. We fought hard, and not all games have the outcomes we want, but words cannot express how proud I am of this team.” And Alanah Dunphy said, “I was confident that we were going to come back. We try not to give up even though we are losing, and we do a pretty good job of keeping our heads up and working on coming back.”
The factor that so many people probably didn’t consider was how the cold, damp weather was going to affect the Hawks, both physically and mentally. No one that was asked used the weather as an excuse. Both teams had the same conditions to deal with. Admittingly, the Hawks didn’t handle it very well. “I don’t think Emma (Nichols) was at her best,” said Lucas. “I think the weather may have had a little to do with that. She relies on getting spin on her ball, so I’m sure it wasn’t easy to do with the cold, damp weather. I think the cold weather played a big factor in our performance, but both teams had to deal with it, and the other teams dealt with it better than us.”
“We all have played in cold weather, but every time it’s hard,” noted Dunphy. “The cold weather makes everything we do ten times more difficult. For me, I had trouble keeping my hands warm. I kept a hot hands pack in my pocket and was using it whenever I could to keep my throwing hand warm.” Shuman agreed. “It was really hard to play with numb hands, but we all had to endure it, so each side was suffering.” Reagan Short was out with Shuman in the outfield. She said it was miserable. “The weather played a big role for everyone on the field. The outfield was drenched, making it hard to grab the ball and it was soaking our feet. So we were up against Oak Grove and the weather.”
Still, the Hawks represented themselves well. Mudd had three hits, while Johnson had two. Nichols, Boyd, Cage and Knudtson rounded out the nine hit attack. Nichols gave up six earned runs on 11 hits. She struck out three and walked two.
So there are a couple of drawbacks to losing that semifinal game. One, obviously, is that a team will not play for the state title. The other is that, in the Hawks case, the third place game was played about an hour later. And if anyone remembers what the weather was like on Saturday compared to Friday…well,…enough said.
So Hillsboro and Sullivan moved to the main stadium where the Missouri State Bears play their home games. Third place games contain a lot of different factors. This was the final time the team would ever play together. This would also be the seniors’ final game. But a team also has the opportunity to end the season with a win. A team could come out very motivated, or still have the semifinal game hangover and come out flat. There are so many different dynamics at play.
To open the top of the first, Shuman reached on an error and Nichols singled to put runners on first and third with nobody out. However, the next three batters struck out, the first three of ten strikeouts for the game. And the Eagles scored a run in the first on two singles, a stolen base, and a passed ball.
Sullivan would add two more in the third on a two run home run, but Hillsboro would make a game of it in the fourth inning. With one out, Johnson reached on an error. Cage would walk, and then both would pull off a double steal. That was incredibly important, as, with two outs, Short blistered a hit to center. Both runners scored, and Short moved to second on the throw. She was stranded there, but Hillsboro was now down just one run.
But again, sometimes you just don’t get what you want. Hillsboro stranded runners in both the fifth and the sixth innings. Sullivan pushed across a run in the fifth, and two more in the sixth, The Hawks were able to get runners on first and third in the seventh when Nichols doubled, and Boyd singled in their final at bats as Hawks, but there were no heroics left, as Hillsboro dropped a 6-2 decision to Sullivan.
The emotions of that final game were difficult to keep in check. “During the Sullivan game, I was just trying to focus on the game because we could’ve still had a chance to take home third, and my main priority was the game at the time,” said Cage. “But knowing it was going to be my last game with this team and these seniors made me sad. I won’t forget any of the memories we made over this season.” Knudtson had the same type of feelings. “When playing, I don’t think it had hit me yet that this would be the last time we’d be playing together as a team. I am so grateful for these girls…I would not have wanted the season to end with anyone else.”
Mudd had been thinking about the finality of things for a little while now. “Throughout the season, I have thought that this is my last season playing for Coach Lucas, Coach Naeger, Coach Fears, Coach Kiehne, and my teammates. But I wasn’t ready for it to be my last game with them. I tried not to think about it throughout the game, but as the last inning got closer and closer, the more I thought about it. But Boyd, ever focused, said she didn’t even think about it being her final game in the blue and white. “Honestly, during the game against Sullivan I didn’t really think about it being my last game for the program because that wasn’t really my focus. My focus was on hopefully winning and trying to bring home a third place trophy.”
But it didn’t play out that way. The Hawks managed seven hits in the game, led by Nichols with three, and Boyd with two. Cage and Short had the other safeties. Nichols struck out six and walked two while allowing 12 hits.
But the stats didn’t matter. What mattered was the experience. And by all accounts, despite the two losses, the experience was unforgettable. “I took the advice of many people and just soaked this whole experience in,” said Lucas. “I enjoyed getting to go to practice every day this week, and tried to make sure the girls enjoyed it too. I think I had a permanent smile on my face this week. After our sendoff from our entire district, I think the whole team realized how big of a deal this was. I know I really did.”
“My final four experience was super exciting, and I’ll never forget how lucky I felt to be there,” commented Shuman. Dunphy wasn’t about to take this opportunity for granted. “It was great,” she said. “Considering that no other softball team in Hillsboro history has made it as far as we have, I definitely made the memories that I was hoping to make. My favorite part was just getting to experience playing on the field and being able to say that our team made it to the final four.”
“My final four experience was amazing.,” exclaimed Boyd. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of girls and coaches and fans to have gone through this with. The fan support and getting to just have fun with the girls the night before everything started was one of my favorite memories. I mean, the fan support we’ve had since districts has been phenomenal. We really couldn’t have asked for a better support system. They really helped us with all of our success…they were definitely a key part.”
Honestly, the players couldn’t stop talking about it. “It was great,” said Cage. “I got to spend it with my team, and knowing that we were continuing to make school history just made it better.” Mudd had nothing but glowing remarks about her time in Springfield. “This Final Four experience has been absolutely amazing. The Hillsboro community was very supportive, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more from them. This history-making opportunity was incredible. The memories that were made are things that I will cherish forever. Being able to make history with my teammates and coaches was my favorite part of this experience, and we couldn’t have made it this far without each other. Knudtson said, “It was much more than I could have hoped for. It was an amazing opportunity that I will remember for a lifetime.”
Those words, in themselves, are satisfaction enough to know that these girls realized a dream. Those memories will last a lifetime, and as more time passes, and more reflection takes place, there will be a lot of smiles remembering what this team accomplished in a 21-11 season.
“This group is such an amazing group that has helped keep our program going in the right direction, even taking it to that next level,” said Lucas. “In years past, we just couldn’t win that sectional game, but this group proved to everyone that Hillsboro softball can win that big game with a little determination and hard work.”
“This season is definitely one of the most roller coaster seasons ever, but I wouldn’t have changed a single thing,” said Boyd. “Being able to play for the Hillsboro softball program and help represent our school has been so fun for me. This is really just one of the best programs to play for, especially with Coach Lucas and Coach Naeger as your coaches, you can’t really ask for more knowledgeable and supporting coaches than them. And coaches Kiehne and Fears are fantastic to work with. It’s honestly so hard to not have close relationships with them, they’re amazing people. What I’ll remember the most is this season and the history and memories we girls have made together. The underclassman have really stepped up this year to help the seniors on fulfilling our goal and dream of going to state. The memories we made this season are unforgettable.”
“It still doesn’t seem real that this season is over,” said Knudtson. “It has been the best one (in my opinion) by far. At the beginning of the season, none us knew how far we’d be going, or that this team would make history for Hillsboro. What we also didn’t know is how close all of us girls would become. Making it to state with a team that I can call my family is definitely my favorite memory.”
Mudd said there aren’t enough words to express her gratitude. “This season was incredible. From the beginning to the end, we never gave up on ourselves or each other. We always had confidence in one another. It may not have ended how we wanted it, but this season meant the world to me. The memories, the laughs, and the friendships that I have made this season are something I will always remember. I also want to give a special thank you to Mr. Moreno, Dr. Freeman, Coach Lucas, and Coach Naeger for everything that they have done for us this season. We appreciate everything and we love you! ”
“This has been by far the best season I have ever had and I am so lucky to be a part of it,” said Short. “Some things I wish would have happened, but overall it has been a great season.” “From the beginning of the year I knew this team was to going to do great things and push through hard losses when they happened,” admitted Cage. ” This season was amazing. and I wouldn’t change it for anything. It means a lot to me knowing that I was a part of the first team for Hillsboro softball to make it to state. The thing that I will remember most is my amazing coaches and teammates, and all the bus rides where we sang at the top of our lungs.”
Shuman said, “This season was so unforgettable, and I’ll remember every single moment of it. We had such a good year, and how we all played together as a team was why we had all of our success. It was so special to me to be history makers, and now the bar is set high for all the players to come.”
And Dunphy, just a sophomore, commented, “This season to me was great. We all got along so well and had no problems. We all did great together and just all worked as one. It means a lot to me that I get to be a part of this and get to experience everything including being in the final four. Out of all the memories, I have one that I will never forget. It happened before our game against Sullivan when they were announcing our names. When my name got called, I started walking up the stairs out of the dugout, and I tripped and fell in front of my team and coaches and Sullivan’s crowd and players.”
Memories…even some that may be embarrassing, somehow are okay when you’re one of only four teams still playing softball in your class within the state of Missouri. This team has so much to be proud of, and Ameritime Sports was fortunate to go along for the ride. On behalf of Ameritime Sports, congratulations ladies and coaches. You did your community, your conference, and the state of Missouri proud.