By Matt Turer — firstname.lastname@example.org
By mid-afternoon on May 20 in Springfield, we’ll have a spring softball state champion. Lucky for southwest Missouri, there’s a 50-percent chance that champion will be from our region with Lincoln, Pierce City, Purdy and Strafford making up four of the eight teams playing in this Thursday’s quarterfinals (pending rain, of course).
Those four schools have combined for an 89-6 record this season, with Lincoln being the lone undefeated in the state, Strafford and Purdy having only beaten each other, and half of Pierce City’s four losses coming to Strafford and Purdy.
I’d be very surprised if we don’t have a championship with two of these four teams. Strafford is the favorite on the top half of the bracket and Purdy at the bottom, but Purdy must get through Pierce City and then, in all likelihood, Lincoln before getting a third chance at Strafford. This is going to be fun.
The biggest mystery in our region is Lincoln softball. Why? Well, we simply haven’t been able to cover them. That will change on Thursday when I (pending rain) make the trip up for their quarterfinal matchup against Kingsville (10-2), but up to this point, all analysis of the Lady Cardinals has been stats-focused.
Not that that’s been a bad thing. Lincoln has put up the gaudiest stat lines of any softball team in our region, and probably the entire state. Their 20-0 record has been built on the shoulders of a .497 team batting average and a brilliant pitching line by senior Sloan Swearngin.
Swearngin is averaging 1.93K/IP this season, setting down 160 batters over 83 innings. Those strikeout numbers would be even higher if Lincoln would play a full game more than once in awhile. Swearngin has had eight of her 19 starts that I have stats for go fewer than five innings and only four have gone either six or seven full innings (due to the mercy rule). Can’t blame her or Lincoln for that. They’re just a very good team in a region where tough competition is tough to find. Where Lincoln impresses with that is the fact that game-in-and-game-out, they’re ready to play. Otherwise, we wouldn’t see so many mercy rules. Swearngin isn’t just throwing out high strikeout numbers, she’s not allowing many baserunners in general. Her 19-0 record, 0.55 WHIP and 0.33 ERA are video-game numbers and, with well over 600-career strikeouts, are far from flukeish. There’s probably nothing I’m looking forward to more than seeing how she pitches over the coming rounds as the competition amps up.
But Lincoln isn’t just being carried by Swearngin’s arm. The Cardinals have outscored opponents 221-16 this season despite their games going an average of just 4.7 innings before the mercy rule comes into play. What that means is, without the mercy rule, Lincoln would be averaging over 17 runs per game. Yes, that stat means nothing, but I still like it.
Heading into quarterfinal action, SIX Lady Cardinals are batting above .500 and two over .600. Those two are Swearngin (.607) and Haley Mackey, who’s hitting a team-high .614. The four other above the .500 mark are Aleah Paxton (.554), Paige Bybee (.516), Genesis Smith (.531) and Paige Kahler (.526). Paxton and Swearngin are the power bats in this lineup, slugging .929 and .911, respectively.
It’s hard to say what Lincoln’s toughest test has been, but if you want to read into a potentially good sign and measuring stick, they have wins of 12-1 and 12-2 over Skyline, a team that Strafford beat by a comparable 14-0.
I fully expect Lincoln to advance past Thursday seeing as Kingsville lost 12-6 to an Adrian team that Lincoln just beat 11-1 in sectionals. Where things will get interesting is in the semifinals against Purdy or Pierce City, where we’ll just have to anxiously wait and see what Lincoln can really do.
Pierce City Eagles
Pierce City came into the season as one of our best returning groups and has managed to stay under the radar despite an attractive 22-4 record. The Lady Eagles have been dominant for most of the season and showed me a lot of promise in close losses to Strafford and Purdy, which should give them hope in Thursday’s quarterfinal in Purdy (25-1).
For that reason, let’s start there. Pierce City faced and lost to Purdy 6-1 in the Pierce City Invitational championship back on April 1. The only other in-state school to play Purdy within five runs was Strafford (twice).
Even Pierce City’s other two losses shouldn’t come with TOO much cause for concern. On paper, their 4-2 loss at Wheaton is sort of a dark mark, but Wheaton was probably one of our more underappreciated groups this season and one of only eight schools to not be mercy-ruled by Purdy. Pierce City’s fourth loss was 3-2 against a Clever group that they ended up splitting the season series with and that was probably one of the six best teams in our region before Emily Mendenhall went down with an injury a couple weeks ago.
You’re not going to see the same gaudy top-to-bottom numbers from Pierce City as you’ll see from the other three teams still alive in our region, but they’ll do it to you with consistent pitching by Ragan Blinzer, a strong top-half of the batting order and pretty good fielding behind Blinzer.
And they’ll do it with one more thing: Ali Raley.
Raley is the front-runner for MVP right now thanks to this absolutely unbelievable batting line: .617 BA, 50 H, 23 2B, 6 3B, 10 HR, 57 RBIs, 34 R, 2.083 OPS.
I’ve never seen an OPS that high in my life. NEVER EVER. Take a second and just marvel at those numbers and the fact that Raley has 39 extra-base hits all by herself in 92 plate appearances and has struck out just twice.
But Pierce City isn’t here solely on Raley’s Ruthian bat. Hannah Argyris is batting .580 with 20 extra-base hits, Blinzer .463 with 18 extra-base hits and a pair of homers, and Jessica Prescott is also over .400 at the plate with a .424 line.
Blinzer has been strong on the mound as well, striking out 173 in 139 1/3 innings while posting a 2.11 ERA and 1.11 WHIP.
On the surface, this quarterfinal matchup with Purdy looks daunting, but Pierce City is more than capable of pushing the yellow and black Lady Eagles to the brink if they’re clicking on all cylinders, something they did in their 2-0 sectional win over Liberal (21-4-1). Pierce City got its production that game a solo homer by Prescott and an Argyris bunt scoring Libbey Strickler thanks to a throwing error. Blinzer was strong on the mound, coming within one hit of a perfect game. If that pitching strength can carry over, you never know what could happen against Purdy.
Along with Strafford, Purdy has been a championship favorite all season, and rightfully so. It could be argued that the Lady Eagles have the best batter (Rion Boyd) and pitcher (Hallie Henderson) in the state, along with the deepest top-to-bottom lineup.
Now, Boyd being in that argument isn’t really a surprise. She was a known commodity at the plate coming into 2017 and has only gotten better, swinging a .580 bat with 23 extra-base hits in 93 plate appearances. Where things get interesting is Henderson.
As a sophomore in 2016, Henderson finished 11-2 with a 1.28 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 82 innings. Good numbers that earned her all-state, but especially in spring softball, you want to see more outs by the strikeout if you’re going to be in that truly “elite” range as a pitcher. In 2017, we’ve seen her make that jump. Henderson has struck out 222 batters in 124 2/3 innings and has a 0.95 ERA and 0.55 WHIP while issuing just nine walks. More impressive than those ERA and WHIP numbers is her opponent on-base percentage of .161 and the fact that she’s throwing 68 percent of her first pitches for strikes, putting nearly seven out of every 10 batters in an immediate hole.
Henderson’s numbers aren’t being held up by weak opponents either. She’s been good against the state’s best as well, including Strafford. Over a three day stretch in March, Henderson went 1-1 against the one-loss Lady Indians, striking out 13 in 13 innings and allowing five earned runs on 12 hits, walking none. That sub-1.00 WHIP means that 3.46 ERA over the two games was a bit unlucky, but even the idea of holding a Strafford team that averages 11.6 runs per game to 3.5 runs per game is impressive.
With that kind of threat on the mound, it’s going to be tough to get more than a handful of runs on a Purdy team that averages 12 runs per game at the plate. That kind of output can only come from offensive depth, and that shows with five Purdy batters already over the double-digit doubles mark and two others sitting at seven. The Lady Eagles have 112 extra-base hits as a team and four of them have two home runs. Beyond Boyd, Henderson at .520 and Casey Ellison at .500 are at or over the .500 mark and three other starters are batting over .400.
Purdy gets Pierce City (22-4) in Thursday’s quarterfinal. The two met back on April 1 with Purdy winning 6-1, one of the tightest games all season for the yellow and black Lady Eagles. A win Thursday would set up Purdy with a semifinal matchup against either Lincoln (20-0) or Kingsville (10-2). Odds are, it will be Lincoln. While the Lady Cardinals are undefeated they haven’t faced a team anywhere near as tough as Purdy or, for the matter, Pierce City. That makes Purdy the favorite but also means that’s a game that’s extremely tough to judge. Lincoln is batting .497 as a team and has a dominant pitcher of its own in Sloan Swearngin: 19-0, 0.33 ERA, 0.55 WHIP, 160 K, 83.0 IP. A win there, and it will likely mean a grudge match with Strafford for the state title.
Back in those two March matchups, Purdy took Game 1 against Strafford, 6-2, and fell in Game 2, 6-4. Neither team has lost since their respective losses in those two games, but Purdy was able to find offense success in both games while Strafford was really only able to get to Henderson in one.
Going back to the start of basketball season in the fall, the Strafford Lady Indians are 55-1. After a 33-0 basketball season capped off by a state championship, Strafford softball is sitting on a 22-1 record entering the quarterfinal. The crazy jealousy-inducing thing is there that seven members of that state championship basketball team are also on this potential state champion softball team. Simply put, they don’t remember how, or know how, to lose.
Strafford’s only loss this year came at the hands of Purdy way back on March 20. That was a 6-2 loss just days after a state basketball title, and if you don’t think tired legs and a lack of practice time came into play for players such as Zoey Mullings, Hayley Frank and Kayley Frank, I don’t know how to convince you. Strafford bounced back from this loss three days later, beating Purdy 6-4, and has ripped off 19 straight wins since.
So why is this state title Strafford’s to lose? Outside of championship pedigree, it’s experience and a wicked combination of hitting a pitching. The Lady Indians entered last year’s district tournament at 19-0 and pushed that record to 20-0 before being upset by eventual state champion Mt. Vernon. They know the effort that needs to go into postseason play and because of that, don’t expect a slip-up. The only way Strafford loses before this year’s title game is if they happen to run into the eventual state champion which, in my eyes, is either them or Purdy, who they wouldn’t face until the title game.
Remember Zoey Mullings? One of last year’s softball 1 Awards nominees and one of the best big-game players in the state for girls basketball, Mullings is absolutely locked in right now on the mound and at the plate. The kid who learned to pitch by throwing off a plank of wood in her backyard got off to a bit of a slow start after basketball season but has lowered her WHIP to 0.97 and her ERA to 1.96 heading into the quarterfinals. Mullings has struck out 85 over 75 innings, numbers that are down from last year, but the reason why may be advantageous going forward: rest. The addition of Hillcrest transfer Alissa Collette has allowed Mullings to take days off from the mound this season. Collette has thrown 44 2/3 innings and done so effectively, putting up a 1.72 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and striking out 55. That has essentially saved Mullings from starting an additional seven games, giving her what’s probably the freshest arm of any remaining No. 1 starter in the quarterfinals.
Strafford is hitting .410 as a team and averaging 11.6 runs per game. Collette leads all regulars with a .516 average but Mullings has been the team’s most effective run producer with a team-high 1.386 OPS, 30 runs and 34 RBIs to go with a .472 average. Samantha Gott (.462), Hayley Frank (.459) and Rilie Vote (.403) are also over .400 at the plate this season and Brooke Bishop leads the team with 19 extra-base hits (including seven triples).
The Lady Indians travel a few hours east to West County (15-3) for Thursday’s quarterfinal. West County lost to Van Buren twice this year, who beat Mountain Grove 3-2. Strafford just beat Mountain Grove 8-1 in sectional play and should be the favorites Thursday, even with the long road trip. A win would set them up with a semifinal game against the winner of Kennett (20-3) vs. Scott City (15-3). A win there and we likely get to watch our much-anticipated championship grudge match against Purdy, pending an upset by Pierce City or Lincoln.