OZARK -- The St. Elizabeth Hornets have built a dynasty on the baseball diamond.
Five consecutive Final Fours. Two runner-up finishes. Three state championships, including back-to-back titles in 2022 and 2023.
The Hornets’ recent success leaves the remaining 98 Class 1 baseball programs asking one question: When will their run finally come to an end?
Seven weeks ago, it wasn’t looking good for St. Elizabeth. The Hornets started the season by losing five of their first six games, an anomaly for a program that had a 15-2 record in the fall season.
Then, with one team gathering, the course of the season changed.
“Everybody was kind of down,” said Jace Kesel, one of St. Elizabeth’s five senior baseball players. “It was after the (April 11) loss to Dixon. We were 1-5, we weren’t used to that in St. E, we weren’t used to losing that much.”
The players got together for a team meal just outside Jefferson City for a bonding experience.
“We just decided we needed to come together and hang out a little bit,” Kesel said. “It helped out a lot.”
The Hornets won their next 13 games -- three against reigning state champions -- and finished the season by winning 22 of their final 24 games.
“We talked about how it’s a long season and we just needed to calm down,” Kesel said. “Emotions were flaring. … We just needed to find our footing. We talked about it and we got in a groove from there.
“It changed our season, for sure, because that’s when we started acting as a big family. Having fun was huge, and that dinner was really fun. We ended up having one later right before the playoffs, and that helped out, too.”
St. Elizabeth wrapped up its season with a 13-3 win in Tuesday’s state title game against Platte Valley. It’s the fifth state championship for a program that was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2021, two shy of New Bloomfield’s record of seven baseball state titles.
In eight games this season against Class 1 opponents, the Hornets scored 13 or more runs in five of those games. Their opponents combined to score nine runs in eight games.
St. Elizabeth graduates three all-state players from this year’s team, a significant loss for any program.
But it’s the amount of talent the Hornets have coming back that worries the rest of Class 1.
“We’re going to look a little different without our three seniors out there,” St. Elizabeth coach Caleb Heckemeyer said. “But our young guys have done a great job every year to step up and fill the holes.”
Gavin Williams was the winning pitcher in Tuesday’s title game and was the team’s No. 1 pitcher during the first half of the season, when Caleb Oligschlaeger was still recovering from an injury he suffered during the basketball season.
“He’s a great pitcher, he pitched in some big games for us this year,” Heckemeyer said of Williams. “I didn’t expect anything less from him.”
Williams’ catcher also had high praise for the sophomore right-hander.
“He’s got the potential to be right up there with Brock (Lucas), Caleb, Dylan (Wobbe) and Carson (Kesel),” Jace Kesel said.
Blake Wobbe led the St. Elizabeth offense Tuesday. The sophomore second baseman went 3-for-4 with a triple and six RBI from the No. 9 spot in the batting order.
“Last year, he was more in the middle of the lineup,” Heckemeyer said. “He didn’t hit real well, so we tried something new this year and put him down in the lineup. He really started coming through for us, had even better at-bats and started getting some hits.”
Noah Chipman, also a sophomore, went 3-for-4 from the No. 7 spot against Platte Valley. Like Williams, he made the all-state team as a freshman.
“He’s a better hitter than what he has been lately, hopefully he was just saving it for this game,” Heckemeyer said. “He got a new bat, tried it out and goes 3-for-3. He’s a guy who can hit the ball in the holes and get on base.”
The Hornets bring back six starters from Tuesday’s title game, including junior third baseman Isaac Green, sophomore outfielder Brady Kemna and freshman outfielder Eli Kemna.
And Williams isn’t the only returning pitcher. Carter Otto, a junior, closed the championship game on the mound. Green, Eli Kemna, Chipman, Wobbe and sophomore Nick Heckemeyer also pitched this spring.
“To get five or six guys that can pitch in a baseball game that I feel confident in, it’s great to always have them year after year,” Caleb Heckemeyer said.
St. Elizabeth’s recent run has some coaches pondering the secret to the Hornets’ and Heckemeyer’s success.
“Everybody’s got athletes, and they’ve got good athletes,” Northeast: Cairo coach Morgan Matthews said. “But just the fact that he’s able to get the kids to play without pressure, play without the bull’s-eye on their back and going out to compete at a high level, it’s so impressive.”
Matthews, who led the Bearcats to a Class 1 third-place finish in 2022, said he makes sure to put St. Elizabeth on Cairo’s fall baseball schedule.
“Every time that we go down there, I try to make it a point to soak it up,” he said. “We look around, see what they have, what they do for pregame, what they do in the cage, what they do in bullpen sessions, what they do on the field. Everything they do, we try to check out and see if it would work for our process.”
Cairo lost 4-0 last fall in St. Elizabeth’s home showcase.
“They have this aura about them, like, ‘We’re somehow going to win this game. We’re going to beat you because we’re going to do all of the things really, really well, and there’s nothing that you can do about it,’” Matthews said.
So is there a trade secret, coach?
“We’re just out here having fun,” Heckemeyer said with a smile. “In practice, we have fun. In games, we’re trying to make sure we have fun and play loose.”
Heckemeyer is one of 15 baseball coaches in Missouri to win three state championships, and at age 30, he has plenty of time to add more state titles in his coaching tenure.
“I never thought this would happen,” Heckemeyer said. “I though maybe I could get one (championship), maybe two. But to win it three times? That’s pretty special.”
In addition to the several returning players, there are younger players ready to join the line of succession in the Hornets’ baseball program.
“We have guys that are going to be in eighth grade that are good pitchers, too,” Heckemeyer said. “They could be on varsity as freshmen pitching. If we just keep getting the right guys that are developing at the right time to keep helping our program, I could see us doing this for a few more years.”
Dynasties don’t last forever, but the one in St. Elizabeth isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
“It’s incredible to me how you can get a group of kids to win non-stop,” Matthews said. “Five years (in a row) is crazy, because you’ve gone through a cycle of kids, and you’ve got them still believing in the same stuff, and each year they’re playing for a state title. It’s just amazing.”