WARDSVILLE -- Usually, it takes the Blair Oaks softball team a full week before it plays its third game of the season.
By the end of Day 1 of the 2023 season, the Lady Falcons will already have three games under their belts, and against high-caliber programs.
“I can’t recall, in my years of coaching, ever starting the season with a tournament,” said Blair Oaks coach Sharon Buschjost, whose team opens play Saturday in the Sullivan Back to School Softball Classic. “That’ll be different and fun all at the same time.”
Originally a two-day tournament, today’s pool-play games in the Classic were canceled due to a forecast of excessive heat conditions. The 16-team Classic will now be split into two eight-team brackets, and Blair Oaks plays Mexico at 9:45 a.m. Saturday in the first round.
Washington, Sullivan, Fatima, Hillsboro, Eureka and Capital City are also in the Gold Bracket.
“We always have a slow schedule start, in terms of number of games,” Buschjost said. “This will be an opportunity to get a good sample size … and have an idea of how things are looking.”
Blair Oaks, which had a 26-8 record last season, lost 2-1 to eventual state champion Fatima in the district title game last season. In the past seven seasons, the Lady Falcons have either reached the Final Four or had their season end with a one-run loss to the state champion in the district title game.
“I’ve come to just expect the district to be that (tough),” Buschjost said. “There will always be someone good in it.”
Blair Oaks returns a pair of all-state seniors this fall: Kally Bruce and Baley Rackers.
Bruce is back for a third season as the starting catcher. She led the team with a .451 batting average last year, tallying 17 extra-base hits to go with 34 RBI.
“Looking for leadership when it comes to calling the game and making good decisions about where to throw the ball, we will be looking to Kally for a lot of things this season,” Buschjost said, “both offensively and defensively.”
Rackers -- who made the all-state team as a utility player -- is the only returning infielder in the Lady Falcons’ starting lineup, making the move from second baseman to shortstop this fall. Rackers hit .438 with a team-high 42 hits and led the way with 17 stolen bases.
“She has impressed us,” Buschjost said. “She’s one of those players that, no matter where we put her, she will do some things to impress us. At shortstop, she’s got a very strong arm. She can not only field a ball in the hole, but she can follow it up with a strong throw.”
Ava Willson, a junior, takes over the No. 1 spot in the pitcher’s circle this season. She pitched in 12 games in 2022, boasting a 7-1 record with a 2.35 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 50⅔ innings.
“She had a very good summer season,” Buschjost said. “She is coming into our season very prepared, focused, rejuvenated and ready to go.”
Haley Klebba, a sophomore, will be the No. 2 pitcher this season. Freshman Lydia Sullens could also see some time in the circle at the varsity level.
The rest of the infield will be senior Morgan Luebbering at first base, senior Chesney Luebbering at third base and junior Madison Vaughan at second base.
Chesney Luebbering was a starting outfielder last season.
“Chesney does everything in high gear,” Buschjost said. “She can get to the ball quickly.”
Morgan Luebbering and Vaughan will be newcomers to the starting lineup.
“That’s a solid infield,” Buschjost said. “They’ve looked good in practice.”
Belle Boessen, a sophomore, returns as the starting center fielder. She batted .400 with 16 extra-base hits and 26 RBI.
“She has so much natural ability that our focus has been for her to add to that, with some softball-specific fundamentals,” Buschjost said.
As for the corner outfield positions, Buschjost said those two spots could be filled by juniors Bria Boessen, Alyssa Reinkemeyer and Addison Kusgen. A pair of sophomores, Avery Hagner and Avery Libbert, could also rotate into an outfield position.
“We have an abundance of potential outfielders,” Buschjost said. “It’s a matter of seeing who runs with it.”
Last weekend, Blair Oaks faced all three Columbia public schools -- Rock Bridge, Hickman and Battle -- in a Jamboree.
“It was a fun day,” Buschjost said. “I saw a lot of good things.”
In terms of the batting order, Rackers will keep her leadoff spot as a slap hitter and Bruce will stay put at the No. 3 spot. Chesney Luebbering moves up to No. 2 and Belle Boessen takes over as the cleanup hitter.
“This year, they’re just falling into place,” Buschjost said of the batting order. “… Having those returning starters in key places in the batting order will help give the team confidence offensively.”
The Lady Falcons’ home opener is Monday against Troy-Buchanan. Then they’ll play Tuesday at Centralia and host Eugene -- which made the Class 2 Final Four -- on Thursday.
Playing six games in six days will give Willson and Klebba plenty of opportunities to pitch in the early going.
“It will give Haley an opportunity that other No. 2 pitchers in past years didn’t have,” Buschjost said, “to see what that 1-2 combination will look like.”
Blair Oaks’ other tournaments are Sept. 15-16 in the Lady Jays Classic and Sept. 29-30 in the Hickman Kewpie Classic.