Editor's Note: Follow @tony_hawley on Twitter for updates from today's semifinal game in Springfield. And read his game report in Saturday's News Tribune newspaper and online.
WARDSVILLE, Mo. - After finishing third in the state last year and returning the bulk of the players from that squad, there were high expectations for the Blair Oaks softball team this season. And while some teams might have caved under that kind of pressure, not so for the Lady Falcons.
Blair Oaks has managed those expectations and put itself back in the Class 3 Final Four, and the Lady Falcons will be looking to bring home a state title in the event that starts today.
"They dealt with (the pressure)," Blair Oaks coach Sharon Buschjost said. "I cannot make up a situation that may have happened where it got to us. ... Unlike many other seasons, we haven't had to deal with the slumps or adversity that other teams face. It's been a pretty steady, consistent level of play we've been experiencing."
The Lady Falcons will look to continue that high level of play, as just two games stand between them and the school's second softball title, with the first coming in 2009. The first step comes today when Blair Oaks (24-4) takes on DeSoto (28-2) at 11 a.m. at the Killian Softball Complex in Springfield. It's Blair Oaks' seventh trip to the Final Four in the last 14 years.
"I think immediately after the Final Four experience last year, the thought was already there in the minds of many of the players to get back," Buschjost said. "... They set the expectations high right from the beginning."
And they stayed high as the Lady Falcons played consistently all season. They never lost back-to-back games and never even had two losses in the same week. Their only losses came to Eureka, which is in the Class 4 Final Four; Oakville, which lost to Eureka in the state quarterfinals; Centralia, the two-time defending Class 3 state champion that's back in the Final Four; and Seckman.
"Seckman may have been our one game where we could have done better, but I'm pretty pleased with the season," Buschjost said. "Even in the losses, there were good things that came from them."
The Lady Falcons have been able to string together wins in large part because of an extremely potent offense. Blair Oaks is hitting .413 as a team and the lowest batting average among the nine regulars is .329.
"There are certain players who have proven themselves over the past few years that they're going to hit, and at a high level," Buschjost said. "But down in the lineup, there were those question marks to start the season about how certain batters were going to produce. I am so proud of the way they have come through and hit the ball."
Leading the way for Blair Oaks is Jolie Duffner, who's hitting a whopping .543 with 14 doubles, four triples and 34 RBI. Then comes four players hitting better than .400 - Payton Staggs (.459, 8 HRs, team-high 39 RBI), Sara Jones (.459, 22 RBI), Blake Burks (.435, 3 HRs, 27 RBI) and LeeAnn Polowy (.403, 3 HRs, 21 RBI).
The rest of the hard-hitting lineup includes Ashley Forck (.392, 2 HRs, 20 RBI), Taylor Markway (.361, 18 RBI), Lauren Viessman (.333) and Paige Siebeneck (.329).
That group has provided plenty of run support for Staggs, who's seen the bulk of the action at pitcher, having thrown 118 1/3 of the team's 157 1/3 innings. She's 19-3 with an ERA of 1.22 and has struck out 115 while allowing just 71 hits.
She'll be facing a DeSoto lineup led by Brittney Krodinger (.578, 7 HRs, 37 RBI), Courtney Krodinger (.485, 4 HRs, 46 RBI) and Bethany Canada (.453, 7 HRs, 39 RBI). Courtney Krodinger (16-1) is also DeSoto's top pitcher, as she has an ERA of 0.85 in 107 1/3 innings.
"It's a new opponent for us," Buschjost said. "That in itself is kind of nice, to go into it and have a chance to show a team what Blair Oaks softball is about, a team that may not be familiar with us."
Blair Oaks and DeSoto have two common opponents this season. The Dragons lost to Sullivan by a 7-2 score, a team the Lady Falcons beat 17-0 and 13-0. DeSoto only other loss came by a 3-2 margin to Battle, a squad Blair Oaks beat 13-2.
The winner of today's game will play either Centralia (25-2) or Harrisonville (19-6) at noon Saturday for the state title. The semifinal losers will meet at 3 p.m. today for third place.
Check the Class 3 state championship bracket and results at mshsaa.org.