WARDSVILLE, Mo. - When a softball team learns how to combine great defense, stellar pitching and timely hitting, it becomes a force to be reckoned with.
Blair Oaks is exactly that force.
The Lady Falcons have been combining all three facets for some time now, and they followed that blueprint to perfection Saturday at the Falcon Athletic Complex.
Blair Oaks got a well-balanced attack to defeat the Monett Lady Cubs in a Class 3 quarterfinal contest, securing the Lady Falcons their second straight trip to the Final Four.
"Those three things working in big games is what you ultimately hope for," Blair Oaks coach Sharon Buschjost said. "That's what I felt happened today."
Start with the pitching. Payton Staggs twirled a two-hitter, striking out six and walking just two.
"She's made some adjustments as the season went on and it's made a huge difference," Buschjost said. "Eight games or so back, she made some adjustments and the walks have been fewer and fewer. She's really stepped up."
Staggs looked in command all game long.
"A lot of the times I was pretty calm and collected, but inside, I was pretty jittery," she said.
Monett got just one runner to third base all game, and that's where one key example of that great defense came into play.
With Blair Oaks clinging to a 3-0 lead, Monett appeared poised to get back into the game after putting runners at second and third with one out. Lauren Viessman fielded a sharp grounder at third, looked the runners back, and then fired to first for the out. First baseman Ashley Forck then gunned the ball home to catcher Taylor Markway to get the runner trying to score from third, completing a tidy 5-3-2 double play.
A few other defensive plays stood out, like Markway gunning out a would-be basestealer in the first and five plays Staggs made on comebackers. She made a very nice play on a liner in the third and turned a tough grounder into an out to lead off the seventh.
"I've coached some teams and seen some teams where the pitchers become a vital part of that defense and can take care of their own, fielding all kinds of balls hit back to them," Buschjost said. "We've continued to work on that, even late in the season, having pitchers field balls in practice. Maybe not balls hit quite as hard as some of the ones that came back to her today, but those were huge plays. She really helped herself."
Staggs said some of those plays were simple self-defense.
"I really am lucky I have reflexes, because I think a couple of those might have gotten me," she said with a smile.
That leaves the offense, which came on strong later after starting out the game with a four-strikeout performance in the top of the first, thanks in part to a dropped third strike.
Viessman put the team on her back early on, scoring the game's first run and then driving in the next two as part of a 2-for-3 day with two RBI.
In the top of the third, Viessman led off with a single and dashed to second base when the Monett left fielder misplayed the ball. Two outs later, she came in on a single by Jolie Duffner.
Then in the fourth, after singles by Ashley Forck and Blake Burks, Viessman drove them home with a triple to left field.
"It's so very exciting to come through for my team when they need me," Viessman said. "They've come through for me before and to start it off and get things going today was nice."
The Lady Falcons got two insurance runs in the seventh. LeeAnn Polowy walked, moved to second on a sacrifice by Sara Jones, stole third and scored on a groundout by Duffner for the first run. Staggs followed and crushed a ball that was never in doubt of clearing the left-field wall.
"I had really been struggling and I just wanted to make contact," Staggs said. "I got one in my wheelhouse and just put a bat to it."
The Lady Falcons (24-4) will open the Final Four, which is being held at the Killian Softball Complex in Springfield, at 11 a.m. Friday against DeSoto (28-2).
"I am super excited," Staggs said. "Going last year really put the emphasis on making it again this year.
It will be the seventh trip for Blair Oaks to the Final Four with Buschjost at the helm, as the Lady Falcons also went from 2000-03, 2009 and 2012.
"This feeling is a great feeling. It doesn't get old," Buschjost said.