Kickapoo plays with purpose in five-inning shutout of West Plains

By Jeff Kessinger (For OzarksSportsZone.com)

It took all of two innings for Kickapoo to take all the mystery out of its softball game with West Plains Monday afternoon. The home team blasted two home runs and got steady pitching from Ellie Facklam to cruise to an 11-0 victory.

“The girls showed up with a purpose today, which was good to see,” Kickapoo coach Jason Howser said. “We’ve been talking about making sure we come out for the first pitch ready to play, and they looked energized. Ellie set the tone in the circle and our defense was ready and backed her up. And when you get three runs in the first inning that puts everybody at ease. They can relax and play the game.”

Facklam worked around a lead-off single in the first inning, stranding Zoey Williams at second base. Emily Gregory reached on a one-out base hit in the second, but she was erased on an inning-ending fielder’s choice. It was a windy afternoon at Kickapoo, with a steady breeze blowing across the field. That didn’t faze the senior pitcher.

“I thought my changeup was working well,” Facklam said. “That’s kind of my go-to pitch. (Kate Pierce) is one of the best catchers and I know she has my back on everything. She’ll block or catch anything.”

While West Plains was struggling to move runners, Kickapoo was blasting the ball out of the yard. Senior Chloe Merced hit a three-run blast to left in the bottom of the first to give KHS all the offense it needed. But Kickapoo was not done scoring. Not even close.

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Megan Dancey drew a walk to lead off the bottom of the second and later scored on a Merced groundout. Two batters later it was Jaden LaBarge’s turn to go big fly. Her three-run shot over the right-centerfield fence stretched Kickapoo’s lead to 7-0.

“Their pitcher was throwing inside, so Coach Howser told us that we needed to move off the plate,” LaBarge said. “So I moved off the plate and I just stayed inside the ball and just took it.”

After some summer struggles, LaBarge has been raking this fall. She refocused herself just before the school season started and now has nine home runs in 13 games.

“I did a lot of tee work and focused on staying inside the ball,” the senior infielder said. “I also did a lot of drills watching the ball all the way in and keeping my eyes on the bat so I could see (the ball) hit the bat. Last year I did very poorly with striking out, so this year my goal was to not strike out. I’m swinging at anything that’s close and it’s working out.”

LaBarge was 2-for-3 with a single, two runs scored and four driven in to lead the Kickapoo offense. Clearly that hard work is paying off.

“Mechanically her swing is incredible,” Howser said. “Her biggest thing, like a lot of hitters, is that she gets into her own nugget. Sometimes the best approach is just to help them get out of it a little bit. But she’s a tireless worker and has worked very hard at the art of hitting.”

Facklam helped her own cause at the plate, going 2-for-3 with an RBI. She faced her biggest test in the third inning. Williams doubled off the wall in right with one out and Megan McCrackin drew a walk to put two aboard. But Facklam settled down and got a ground ball and a strikeout to squash the threat. She finished the afternoon with three strikeouts and her teammates played flawless defense behind her.

“That boosts my confidence so much,” she said. “They’ve got my back, too. They’re always talking me up, pumping me up and getting me ready. It makes me feel so good when I’m pitching.”

Merced also drove in four runs for Kickapoo, going 1-for-3 at the plate. Pierce was 1-for-1, hitting a double, drawing a walk and getting hit by a pitch. She scored three runs and drove in two more. Leadoff hitter Taylor Akers also scored three runs for KHS.

Kickapoo has seven games and the Springfield Tournament left in the regular season. Howser hopes his crew can stay healthy and continue to improve before they head to Republic Oct. 13-16 for the Class 5 District 6 Tournament.

“We always strive to, offensively or defensively, is to play each pitch,” Howser said. “We can get better at that. You can always improve at being ready for each pitch. With COVID the biggest thing might be who is going to be healthy and able to play. It’s just the reality of the situation this year. Health is bigger than anything we’re going to do in practice.”