Strength in all three main phases of the game has lifted the Houston High School softball team to success on numerous occasions this season.
With the season on the line, the Lady Tigers did it again this week, employing high quality offense, defense and pitching to win the 8-team Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 2 District 4 Tournament at Mansfield.
In the process, second-seeded Houston got revenge on back-to-back days, routing No. 3 Mansfield 11-1 in a semifinal contest on Tuesday and then downing top-seeded Ava 7-3 on Wednesday.
The Lady Tigers began their run to the title on Monday, blasting No. 7 Thayer 20-5 in 3 innings.
Houston’s run-rule shortened, 6-inning victory over Mansfield avenged a 4-2 loss April 5 at Carter Field, while the win over Ava avenged a 7-2 defeat on April 14, also at home.
“It was awesome,” said Lady Tigers head coach Jim Moore. “We talked all year about how good we could be, and potentially be great, and how the biggest thing was getting out of our own way and not beating ourselves. For the girls to buy into that and get this done is a great feeling.
“I’m so excited for them; we’re still floating on cloud nine.”
In the hard-fought, intense championship contest, the Lady Bears took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the fist inning when junior shortstop Olivia Gastineau led off with a single and scored moments later on a 1-out fielder’s choice.
The Lady Tigers got even in the top of the third frame when sophomore Kelsey Pritchett led off with a line-drive double down the left field line, advanced to third base on a sacrifice bunt by junior Maddy Riley and then scored on a ground-out.
Houston went ahead 3-1 in the top of the fifth inning.
Riley got aboard on an error, and then scored with 1 out on a pop-fly double to short right field by junior Karlee Curtis (that dropped untouched between a pair of Ava fielders). Curtis then took third on a passed ball and scored on a bad throw that went into left field.
Ava responded by pulling even again in the bottom of the frame. After junior first baseman Sara Mendel and senior second baseman Macee Cutbirth hit back-to-back singles to left field with 1 away, they both scored with 2 outs on a double to the gap in right-center by Gastineau.
After neither team scored in the sixth inning. With the tension running high amongst the players and the huge gathering of fans of both squads, the Lady Tigers put up 4 huge runs in the top of the seventh inning.
The decisive rally began with a single to right field by senior catcher Mackenzie Holder, who was replaced on the base paths by freshman Lacey Cavaness. Caveness then went to second on a wild pitch and took third when Pritchett reached base on an error.
After Pritchett stole second, Riley came to bat and head coach Jim Moore called a squeeze play. Riley laid down a perfect bunt to bring home Cavaness, and she reached base safely. and Pritchett also scored thanks to an error on the play.
Riley scored moments later after a passed ball and a wild pitch, putting Houston on top 6-3 with 2 down.
But before the inning was over, the Lady Tigers added another run when senior shortstop Hannah Dzurick singled to left field, stole second and came home on a single up the middle by senior third baseman Mali Brookshire.
The Lady Bears got a runner on base in the bottom of the frame, but the contest ended and Houston secured the district championship on a double-play, with junior second baseman Madi Reed fielding a grounder, tagging the runner as she went by and then tossing to junior first baseman Mackenzie Bryan.
Junior Aliyah Walker pitched a complete game for the Lady Tigers, allowing only 4 hits while walking 2 and not recording a strikeout. Senior Julia Henry went the distance in the pitcher’s circle for Ava and gave up 6 hits, while fanning 3 and issuing 1 base on balls.
The Lady Bears (16-8) committed 6 errors and left 3 runners on base in the contest, while Houston had only 1 miscue and stranded 4.
“We’ve had some games this year when things didn’t go our way and we got our daubers down and you could see it in our play,” Moore said. “That didn’t happen in this game and it made a big difference. Ava is a good team and they kept fighting back. But the girls have gelled and we’re united as a team, and we never let it affect us.
“We stayed positive and kept putting the pressure on them, and lo and behold it worked out for us and we’re still playing.”
Houston had 14 hits in the game (including 7 doubles and 2 triples) and stole 10 bases. After leaving 12 runners on base in the April matchup with the Mansfield, the Lady Tigers stranded only 6 this time.
Leading 6-1, Houston scored 4 big runs in the bottom of the fifth inning. The rally began when Reed led off with a line single to left field. A barrage of run-scoring extra-base hits followed, as Pritchett doubled to deep center field, Walker tripled to left, Curtis tripled to right and Dzurick doubled to right.
Leading 10-1, the Lady Tigers almost closed out the contest with 1 out in the bottom of the sixth inning, when Reed crushed a ball to deep center field that landed just in front of the fence and she settled for a double. With 2 outs and the bases loaded, Walker spent several minutes at the plate in an at-bat featuring 14 pitches. She knocked a walk-off infield single on the last one, driving in Reed to invoke the 10-run mercy rule.
Walker pitched a complete game for Houston, allowing 5 hits while striking out 4 and walking 3.
Behind her, the Lady Tigers’ infield and outfield constantly came up with key plays – including several of the highlight variety – and combined to commit no errors.
Meanwhile, Mansfield senior Madalyn Ivy also went the distance in the pitcher’s circle, but frequently saw hard-hit balls zoom past her in all directions. She also didn’t receive as much help as Walker, as the Lady Lions committed 4 errors in the contest and made other fielding mistakes that didn’t show up in the box score.
Reed, Dzurick and Walker all had 3-hit outings. Reed went 3-for-3 with a walk, a double and 2 runs scored, while Dzurick went 3-for-4 with 2 doubles, 2 RBIs and a run scored, and Walker went 3-for-5 with a triple, a double, 3 RBIs and 2 runs scored.
Shortly after the contest began, there was little doubt about the eventual outcome.
Houston batted around twice and scored 14 runs in the bottom of the first inning with an offensive outburst that included 7 hits, 6 walks, 3 errors and 4 wild pitches. The big blow came with 1 out and score at 11-1, as Bryan belted a towering 2-run home run to left-center field.
The Lady Bobcats actually took a 1-0 lead in the top of the frame, scoring without the benefit of a hit on a walk and a trio of wild pitches.
After starting pitcher Pritchett settled in during the top of the second inning and struck out the side in order, the Lady Tigers added 6 runs in the bottom of the frame to hold a 20-1 advantage. Brookshire delivered a 2-run triple during the rally.
The Lady Bobcats showed some life in the top of the third inning, scoring 4 runs on 1 hit, 4 walks, a hit batter and an error. The game ended on a come-backer to Dzurick, who was in the pitcher’s circle for the final two outs.
Pritchett gave up only 1 earned run and didn’t allow a hit in 2 1/3 innings of work, while striking out 6 and issuing 5 walks. She also went 3-for-3 at the plate and drove in 2 runs.
Brookshire also had a multi-hit outing, going 2-for-2 with a walk, 3 RBIs and 3 runs scored.
Senior Abbigayle Rouse did the pitching for Thayer (3-12), allowing 7 earned runs on 10 hits, while striking out 1 and issuing 10 free passes.
Lady Bobcats fielders committed 7 errors in the contest, while the Lady Tigers had only 1.
Houston recorded only 2 errors in the entire tournament.
“It’s fun to watch,” Moore said. “The girls have that mindset where they want the ball hit to them, and whenever it is, they’re making the play. And when we do make a mistake, we have a next-play mentality and we want the ball hit right back to us.
“But we made a lot of the kinds of plays you have to make to win a championship. It was amazing.”
The win over the Lady Bears (who won the South Central Association conference championship thanks to their victory at Houston) extended the high school softball careers of the Lady Tigers’ three seniors: Brookshire, Dzurick and Holder.
“This softball team means more to me than words can explain,” Dzurick said. “Every single one of us is athletic and determined to find a way to win. They are more than just a team to me; they are family, and we always find a way to put numbers on the board and have fun with it.”
The win over Mansfield was the 100th in Moore’s high school softball coaching career and the district crown was his first in softball (he’s coached a few in basketball).
“It’s special,” he said. “It’s great to see these girls get to celebrate, and it’s nice to see all their hard work pay off. Before we broke from our last huddle, we talked about how now we have something nobody can take from us.
“It’s also special for the town. It means a lot to me to come back to my home town and be able to get a championship. And we’ll keep building; our program is on the rise and we’re going the right direction. This is just the next step in taking it to the next level.”
The Lady Tigers (18-5) will host a Class 2 state tournament quarterfinals game against Central Park Hills (out of Park Hills in St. Francois County) at 5 p.m. Tuesday (May 17). The Lady Rebels (16-6) advanced to state by winning the District 3 Tournament.
“We’re enjoying the moment,” Moore said, “but we’re not done.”
CLASS 2 DISTRICT 4 TOURNAMENT SCORES
Ava (1) 15, Licking (8) 0
Houston (2) 20, Thayer (7) 5
Mansfield (3) 12, Liberty (6) 5
Mountain Grove (4) 3, Cabool (5) 2
Houston 11, Mansfield 1
Ava 10, Mountain Grove 0
Houston 7, Ava 3
To view photo galleries from the Lady Tigers’ games in the district tournament (with the option to purchase photos), go online to houstonherald.smugmug.com.