Centralia scores the early title knockout

Blair Oaks can’t overcome seven-run first inning

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — It didn’t take long for the Centralia Panthers to deliver the knockout blow in the Class 3 softball state championship game.

Make that knockout punches.

The Panthers cracked two home runs — a three-run shot and a grand slam — in a seven-run first inning that sparked them to a 9-2 win against the Blair Oaks Lady Falcons.

There were six more innings remaining, but the game was over.

“It was gut-wrenching,” Blair Oaks coach Sharon Buschjost said of the inning. “It was one of the biggest challenges I may have had as a coach, especially in a Final Four, to try to keep the players’ attitudes where they needed to be.”

In what amounted to a six-inning test of character, Buschjost said she got some help in that task from the seniors on the team.

“That’s who I was hearing in between innings, the seniors, trying to keep things going,” she said.

Making the task even more daunting was the fact the Lady Falcons were going to have to try to come back against one of the state’s elite pitchers. Baylee Douglass, a hard-throwing right-hander who led Centralia to the previous two state championships, brought in a microscopic ERA of 0.40 into the contest.

And considering she already owned a win against Blair Oaks this season — in a 1-0, eight-inning Centralia victory Aug. 29 — getting seven runs would prove to be a tough task.

Douglass ended up throwing a seven-hitter while striking out seven to lead the Panthers to the three-peat.

“I felt like we put the ball in play,” Buschjost said. “Going into it, if I would have known that we would have struck out seven times with her and had seven hits, I would have felt confident. There were a lot of things from our end of it that were good.”

Like the first two batters of the game. LeeAnn Polowy led off and laced a single to left field, and Sara Jones followed with a bunt single. But a popup on a bunt attempt, a fly out to center field and a liner to third ended the frame.

“After we had an opportunity to make something happen and didn’t, they came back with a vengeance and just put us in a hole — a big hole,” Buschjost said.

After the first batter flew out to center, seven of the next eight batters for Centralia reached safely. The two deciding swings — the three-run homer by Sydney Creel and the grand slam by Madison Preston — came from a likely source and an unlikely one. Creel came into the game with more than 40 RBI on the season, while Preston more than doubled her season total — she had just three RBI going into Saturday’s game.

“They could have come out feeling tremendous pressure to three-peat or come out feeling confident because, ‘Hey, we’ve beaten Blair Oaks before and we’ll beat them again,’” Buschjost said. “... They answered (the bell) like two-time defending state champions. They just continued to hit the ball, and to hit good pitches.”

Centralia (27-2), which added its final two runs in the fifth inning, ended with 10 hits.

Blair Oaks (25-5) got its first run in the fourth. Payton Staggs led off with an infield single and moved to second when the late throw from the second baseman got away. She then came in on a double by Taylor Markway.

The other run came in the sixth when Staggs, who was the losing pitcher, pounded a homer over the fence in left field.

Markway and Staggs ended up with two hits and one RBI apiece, while Polowy chipped in with a pair of hits.

Saturday’s game was the final in a Blair Oaks uniform for six seniors — Polowy, Jones, Paige Siebeneck, Blake Burks, Heather Vaught and Taylor Thurston.

“It’s a tough transition (after the game) to go from a heartbreaking loss to finalizing your season to talking to the team to talking to seniors and say all the right things,” Buschjost said.

“You just have to let (the seniors) know how much they mean to me, and to the rest of the coaches, and to the team. They’ve had a tremendous impact on our success.”

Earlier coverage:

Centralia beats Blair Oaks 9-2 for Class 3 state softball title

Jones sends Blair Oaks softball to state title game

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