By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
SPRINGFIELD — Lilly Whitten struck out 12 in a dominant complete-game shutout, Ella Dougherty cleared the bases with a key fourth-inning double and Skyline punched its ticket to the Class 2 championship game with a 5-0 victory over Kennett on Saturday evening.
Playing under the lights at the Killian Softball Complex, Whitten allowed just three hits in her most dominant outing since returning from a month-long absence due to mononucleosis and her catcher became the latest in a rotating list of Tigers to play the hero on offense this postseason as the Tigers kept alive their quest for the school’s first state title in the sport.
The District 7 champions (23-1) will play Potosi (26-3) at 4 p.m. Sunday for the title.
“This whole year has been very emotional for all of us,” Skyline coach Shawna Bybee said. “Every win that we’ve gotten in the postseason has kind of just been ‘We got one more. We have one more in us. Let’s just do one more.’ And I just told them that. I mean, I screamed it. We’re going to the championship. There’s not much more you can tell them except we’ve got to get ready for that game and we want it, you know? We’re pretty hungry. We’ve got to finish it.”
Skyline surged to the No. 2 spot in the statewide rankings behind a high-powered offense that has now outscored opponents 266-46 on the season, numbers that become even more staggering knowing the Mizzou-bound Whitten missed a month of the season with her illness.
Whitten returned for the first game of the district tournament and has been rebuilding her stamina on the fly, getting closer and closer to form with each of her postseason outings.
She held Kennett (16-9) to just two just two hits through six innings and didn’t issue a walk before the Indians rallied to load the bases against her with a hit and two walks in the seventh.
But Whitten ended the game with strikeout No. 12 and leapt into the arms of Dougherty, as teammates swarmed around them on the infield to celebrate their biggest win of the season.
“What hasn’t been said about her, honestly?” Dougherty said. “Just when you think she can’t get any better, she does. When you think that she can’t throw any harder, she does.”
Dougherty became the latest Skyline player to deliver a key hit this postseason.
Leadoff batter Keelie Holmes had a walk-off single against Strafford to give the Tigers their first district title in 19 years, then No. 2 hitter Angelina Curtis hit a three-run, inside-the-park home run against Warsaw in the sectional round that sent Skyline to its first Final Four appearance.
On Saturday, Skyline’s No. 3 hitter crushed a double off the centerfield wall — scoring Holmes, Curtis and Alexa Curtis during a four-run fourth inning that gave the Tigers a 5-0 advantage.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever felt anything better,” Dougherty said. “It feels so amazing, especially with such a great group of girls.”:
That gave Dougherty 49 RBI on the season, which leads the team. She, Angelina Curtis, Grace Edge, Whitten and Holmes were all batting at least .460 at the end of the district tournament.
“That’s the key to our lineup,” Bybee said. “At any point in time, anybody in our nine can turn it on and get the job done. There’s not a break in our lineup. We make pitchers work to get each one of us out. That’s a joy. Any scouting report any team is getting is probably not accurate, you know? Don’t pitch to this girl, she got the winning hit. And then the next girl gets the winning hit. That’s what makes it fun.”
Alexa Curtis, the No. 9 hitter, factored in both of Skyline’s other runs.
She hit a fly ball to the outfield in the second inning, which the Kennett outfielder misplayed and Jorden Hodges came home for a 1-0 Skyline lead. Alexa Curtis also jumpstarted Skyline’s fifth inning, hitting an RBI single that brought Whitten home.
“It’s awesome because 1 through 9, we know we can get the job done,” Dougherty said. “If someone is off, the person in the front of them in the lineup is going to pick them up. It’s just great that we don’t have to rely on one person to get the job done. All of us are so supportive of each other and we know that we each have confidence in everyone’s at bats.”
Skyline will need its hitters to be at their best as it prepares to face the District 3 champions, who advanced to the final after Samantha Huck threw a no-hitter in a 3-0 win over Diamond.
Huck struck out 14 in the win, adding to the 243 she recorded through the district tournament.
“We just need to make sure we’re making quality at bats and putting the ball in play,” Bybee said. “At least making sure they’re working for our outs instead of just going down swinging. I want us to make sure we’re putting the ball in play and we know what to do. We’re going to have to shorten our swings up and get on it fast and hopefully catch it before it breaks so we can get it out to the outfield.”
Huck also entered sectional play with a team-leading .614 average and 42 RBI and is a key reason that Potosi currently sits third in the state rankings, one behind Skyline.
But the rankings and statistics are irrelevant now. It comes down to who wins on Sunday.
“I feel like if we hit, we’ll be good,” Whitten said. “If you can’t hit, you can’t win. We just have to hit and I have faith we can hit because we’re one of the best hitting teams in Missouri.”
With just one more victory, Whitten will be able to remove a few words from that sentence.
Skyline won’t be one of the best hitting teams in Missouri. It will be the best team in Missouri.
“We’re excited for the challenge,” Dougherty said. “We’re ready. We wanted to be challenged this season and we’ve worked so hard to get to this point. We want to see what we’re capable of. It’s our last game. We want to go out with a bang.”