Leading 2-1 with 1 out and nobody on base in the top of the 7th inning, the Houston High School softball team appeared to be in pretty good shape in a Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 2 state tournament quarterfinals game against Ava Wednesday at Carter Field.
But the District 3 champion Lady Tigers’ season came to an end a short time later, as the District 4 champion Lady Bears scored 6 runs and went on to a 7-2 victory.
“It didn’t go the way I thought it would in a lot of ways,” said HHS head coach Jim Moore.
Ava had only 2 hits in the contest prior to the game-winning rally, but notched 5 in the decisive frame.
After 2 singles, a sacrifice bunt and a stolen base, the Lady Bears had runners on second and third with 1 away. Moore then called for an intentional walk to load the bases and set up force outs at every bag, but junior Dailyn Stanifer then bashed a shot to right field that bounced over the fence for a ground-rule double to drive in 2 runs and put Ava ahead for good at 3-2.
Things got worse from there for Houston, as the Lady Bears extended their advantage with 2 more singles and a sacrifice fly.
The Lady Tigers’ usually prolific offense produced only 6 hits in the game. Senior right fielder Rhease Manier had 2, including a monster 2-run home run to dead center field in the bottom of the second inning that left the yard in a hurry before colliding with a pine tree high above the fence. Senior second baseman Madi Reed scored on the big dinger after hitting a ground-rule double to left, but there would be no more scoring for the home team.
Senior Aliyah Walker went the distance in the pitcher’s circle for the Lady Tigers, allowing 6 earned runs on 7 hits while striking out 3 and walking 2. Ava freshman Hunter Strunk also tossed a complete game, recording 8 strikeouts and issuing only 1 walk.
Manier’s homer raised the Lady Tigers’ season total to an amazing 26, with 8 different players hitting at least 2 apiece. When the same two teams met earlier this season at Ava, Houston won 16-9 in a slugfest.
“I didn’t expect a 2-1 ballgame going into the seventh,” Moore said. “I thought it would be a higher-scoring affair from both sides. But we struggled to get key hits in key situations. I felt like if we could have pushed a couple more runs across the plate early, it would have been a different story.
“We made some good plays throughout the game and I thought Aliyah pitched a good ballgame, but we’ve hit the ball well all year long and we just didn’t get the key hit when we needed it.”
After a sparkling effort in the field during their district championship game victory the previous week, the Lady Tigers were officially assessed 5 errors in the loss, but made several other costly mistakes that didn’t show in the box score. Meanwhile, Ava didn’t commit an error.
Houston was without the services of senior center fielder Karlee Curtis throughout the postseason due to an injury.
“That was a huge loss for us,” Moore said. “I hated it for her, but for what she meant to our team, too.”
Houston (17-5) and Ava (19-6) were co-champions in the South Central Association conference this season, and the Lady Tigers beat the Lady Bears in the Class 2 District 4 championship game last year at Mansfield. Moore figures both squads will be contenders again in 2024.
“They’re going to be a good team in the future, but so are we,” he said.
Houston will have several positions to fill following the departure of 7 seniors who were regulars in the starting lineup this year.
“The senior group is such a special group of girls,” Moore said. “They’re competitors, they’re fun to be around, and they set the tone for the future of our program. They set a great example and raised a lot of expectations, and it’s been great for all of our underclassmen to learn from them.
“This program thriving and I think it’s going to continue to thrive, that has a lot to do with what these seniors have done.”
Ava (19-6) advances to face West County (of Park Hills in St. Francois County) in a Final Four contest at 1:15 p.m. Monday in Jefferson City.
“I know that when we reflect on the season a few days from now, we’ll understand what a special season this was,” Moore said. “But right now that’s hard to see because we came up short of what we thought we were capable of. It was a special year, and that’s something you can’t take for granted. That’s why it’s hurting so bad.”