By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Amid its third straight 20-win season, Kickapoo made a key change coming into this week’s Class 4 District 10 tournament against perennial champion Ozark.
The change? Kickapoo’s mentality, says coach Jason Howser.
“I thought, as a group, we showed up this year more with a purpose to win (districts) instead of maybe just getting (to the finals),” he said. “It was a goal (our players) set for themselves: Try to win a district championship. We anticipated we’d have to go through (Ozark) to do it.”
Kickapoo not only went through Ozark – it left no doubt.
After falling behind 2-0, the Lady Chiefs delivered a championship response with an eight-run second inning to take a lead they would not relinquish.
Kickapoo tacked on four insurance runs late to defeat Ozark 14-7 for its second district title in program history and first since 2015.
“Ozark kind of punched us there at first, but I think we answered fairly well,” said Lady Chiefs shortstop Chloe Merced, who went 3-for-4 with two RBIs.
Kickapoo will play at Rolla (18-11 overall) on Wednesday in a Class 4 sectional matchup. The Lady Chiefs beat Rolla 19-9 at home on Oct. 9 to secure an outright Ozark Conference softball championship.
“We’ve really grown as a team this year,” said Kickapoo pitcher Jaden LaBarge, who threw all seven innings and went 2-for-5 with two doubles and two RBIs at the plate. “We’ve really gotten close and gotten better as a whole and individually.”
Five-hole hitter Kenzie Davis put an exclamation point on the eight-run second inning with a grand slam that made it 8-2 Kickapoo. She also drew three walks.
Overall, five Kickapoo hitters finished with two or more hits.
“I was extremely proud of how we went through our at-bats,” Howser said. “We were a bit aggressive in the first inning by maybe swinging at pitches we weren’t looking for. I thought we settled down in the second inning and started hunting our pitches more.”
Ozark trailed 10-2 entering the bottom of the fifth before mounting a comeback.
“We didn’t lose hope at all after that eight-run inning,” said Ozark coach Jimmy Nimmo. “I knew it was going to be a battle, because Kickapoo’s a really good offensive team and well-seasoned.
“But eight runs? We weren’t worried. I knew our girls would battle back, and we did.”
Raegan Dickinson’s bases-loaded double in the fifth brought Ozark within 10-4.
Ozark cut the Kickapoo lead to 10-7 in the sixth on Athena Andrews’ three-run homer. She also homered in the first inning to give Ozark the early 2-0 lead.
But Kickapoo put the game out of reach in the seventh.
Third baseman Ellie Facklam and LaBarge had back-to-back, two-run hits that extended Kickapoo’s lead to 14-7.
“You can’t allow them the four runs,” Nimmo said. “We kind of didn’t give ourselves much of a chance at the end.”
Ozark finishes 18-7 overall, ending a decade-plus streak of 20-win seasons.
But there’s an asterisk to that: The Lady Tigers had eight games rained out this season, including last weekend’s Carthage Invitational.
Entering Friday, Ozark had also won district championships in seven of the past eight seasons. The Lady Tigers graduate just one senior and bring back all nine starters for next season.