By Michael Smith (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The 2020 softball season was a magical one for the Kickapoo Chiefs.
Not only did they make their first state semifinal appearance in school history, they did it while making comebacks from a 2-1 deficit in the bottom of the sixth of the district title game against Carthage (a 3-2 win); and a 5-1 deficit in the district semifinals against Nixa (a 7-5 victory).
Coming from behind was the Chiefs’ specialty, and they ended up in a similar situation in Saturday’s Class 5 semifinal game at Lee’s Summit North High School. Kickapoo had its best chance to score while down 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning.
The Chiefs had the bases loaded with just one out, but Lee’s Summit North pitcher Cierra Harrison got out of the biggest jam of the game by striking out sophomore Taylor Akers and junior Kate Pierce. That missed opportunity ended in a 2-0 loss for Kickapoo, finishing its season with a record of 24-4-1 record.
The Chiefs’ bats struggled against Harrison, only notching three hits and getting seven batters on base. In the second inning, senior Jaden LaBarge blasted a Harrison fastball to deep left field that appeared it would be a home run. However, the ball went just foul, and she ended up striking out.
“I looked at the umpire behind the plate and she didn’t throw her hands up (to signal a foul), but then I looked at the umpire in left field and he put his hands up and I thought, ‘Thank God,’” Harrison said.
Kickapoo loaded the bases in the fifth after senior Maggie McKee was hit by a pitch, Isabella Williams doubled and Megan Dancy reached on a bunt after sophomore Callie Muldron struck out. However, Harrison was too good as she got two of her 14 strikeouts to end the frame.
“When you face a team of this quality and you face a pitcher like that, you have to take advantage of the opportunities you have,” Kickapoo head coach Jason Howser said. “If we even could have gotten one run there, that would have been nice.”
Harrison used the velocity of her fastball and riseball to dominate the Chiefs’ hitters and threw in a curve ball that had some chase pitches outside the zone. She struck out the side in four of the seven innings she pitched.
“We studied them a lot,” Harrison said of the Kickapoo hitters. “We practiced what we needed to do for each hitter. I just went in there and pitched my game.”
Howser said Harrison was the toughest pitcher his team had faced all season.
“She made quality pitches when she had to,” Howser said of Harrison. “Tip your hat to her today. She throws hard and she has so much movement on her pitches. She was throwing to both sides of the plate.”
On the other side, Kickapoo pitcher Ellie Facklam did everything she could to keep her team in the game. She scattered seven hits across seven innings and allowed two earned runs and struck out one. She utilized a nasty changeup that kept the Broncos hitters off-balance, including University of Washington recruit and North leadoff hitter Kinsey Fiedler, who was 0-for-4.
“Ellie has done that all year for us,” Howser said. “She does a great job competing. She mixes speeds and hits locations. Her best ability is how she competes in the circle at a high level no matter the situation.”
Added Facklam: “I just attacked every hitter because I wanted to win so bad. I knew my defense was behind me so I went after every single hitter. I treated their leadoff hitter like any other girl.
“The whole season (the changeup) has been my go-to pitch. I had a lot of confidence throwing it this game.”
However, it was the bottom of the Broncos order that did the damage. In the top of the fourth, with the bases loaded, No. 8 hitter Ella Wright blooped a single inside the right-field line to give North its first run. No. 9 hitter May McCoy grounded a single up the middle to score another run. However, on that same hit, junior Kelbi Meisenheimer tried to score from second, but was gunned down by Williams, who threw a dart from center field to home plate.
That was all the run support Harrison needed, who only allowed one base runner in the sixth on an error and one in the seventh on a hit batter.
Despite the loss, Howser said he was proud of his team’s season, the best one ever by the program.
“I don’t know if any school in Springfield has done this to be honest with you,” However said. “For them to do that, this was their goal at the beginning of the season, and that was nice to see the girls make it this far. It was a little bitter today because we thought we had opportunities, we just couldn’t take advantage of them.”