WARDSVILLE, Mo. - As softball teams tend to do, the Blair Oaks Lady Falcons put four infielders and three outfielders behind their pitcher for the first four innings Saturday against Russellville.
But with the way Payton Staggs was pitching, they might as well have stayed in the dugout.
Staggs struck out the first 13 batters she faced and finished with 18 punchouts as she three-hit the Lady Indians for a 7-1 semifinal win in the Class 2 District 9 tournament.
Believe it or not, Staggs' first three pitches of the game were outside the strike zone.
"To think it started 3-0 on the first batter, and to come all the way back - that was unlike anything I think I've seen," said Blair Oaks coach Sharon Buschjost, who said she'd never had a pitcher begin a game with more consecutive strikeouts.
Russellville did not hit a fair ball until Brooke Kremer grounded out to shortstop Sydney Wilde for the second out of the fifth inning. Staggs never struck out fewer than two batters in an inning.
"She throws really hard, she moves the ball around well," Russellville coach Trisha Volkart said. "I don't know how many strikeouts she had on us, but it was more than I like to see. She'd get a strike, and then she'd throw up and out and she moved it around really well."
Offensively, the Lady Falcons struggled to give Staggs much support early on.
Carli Buschjost singled in the first but was stranded at third after a steal and an error on the throw.
Macyn Wilbers and Wilde reached on a hit by pitch and a single, respectively, to start the bottom of the second. Lydia Pointer then hit a hard line drive, but it was snagged by Russellville third baseman Lindsey Brandt, who promptly turned what might have been a go-ahead hit into a double play.
"We practice baserunning a lot, and those types of plays shouldn't happen," Sharon Buschjost said. "I guess the fortunate thing is we're still in it and have another game to make better baserunning decisions."
Staggs helped herself in the third inning to finally take the lead. After Kaitlyn Otto bunted for a single and moved to third on two wild pitches, Staggs grounded out to third base to drive in Otto.
The senior pitcher got a bit more of a cushion in the fourth when eight Lady Falcons came to the plate, scoring four runs on three hits. Wilbers began the inning by reaching on an error, Wilde sacrificed her to second, and Pointer drove her in with a single to right field. Natalie Mudd was hit by a pitch, and pinch hitter Mackinnley Hamacher singled in Pointer from second. Carli Buschjost then reached for the third of four times on the night with a two-run single. Buschjost finished with a game-high three RBI.
"It was huge," Sharon Buschjost said, "because we were all looking for somebody, somebody to make a difference in the lineup. She did tonight."
The next Blair Oaks run came in the sixth inning, off the bat of Carli Buschjost once again. She doubled to left to plate Brooke Boessen, who reached on an error, and then scored herself when Staggs doubled deep to center.
Despite their inauspicious start at the plate, the Lady Indians were in no hurry to pack their bags. They reached base for the first time in the sixth inning, on two errors, but the runners were stranded. McKendra Fischer singled to start the seventh for Russellville's first hit of the night. Madie Bungart doubled to left, and Keala Kamalii singled to drive in Fischer.
"There are different kind of victories within a game sometimes," Sharon Buschjost said, "and they certainly showed some fire at the end and put the ball in play and made us think a little bit more on the defensive side of things."
Volkart echoed the sentiment.
"I told them, "In my eyes, I view that as a victory,'" she said. "I said, "I don't think anybody here expected that kind of ballgame out of you guys, especially with Blair Oaks' strength of schedule.' I was super impressed by how well they did. They handled the pressure well and just did a great job."
Russellville, which beat California in extra innings Wednesday to reach the semifinal, ends the season with an 8-17 record.
"They grew tremendously," Volkart said. "I had, varying just depending on injuries, four freshmen in the starting lineup at a time. Had three seniors, three juniors, seven sophomores, but they grew tremendously. Improved a ton. I'm super pumped about next season. Maturity and experience. Only good things from here."
Blair Oaks faces Eugene, which defeated Warsaw 17-3 on Wednesday, in the Class 2 District 9 championship at noon Saturday.
"No matter who it is, I think we've learned this season not to expect anything to come easy," Buschjost said. "Nobody's going to roll over for us, and we have to earn it."