Underclassmen lead Linn to Class 2 softball Final Four

Linn shortstop Ava Warren watches the ball into her glove as Capital City’s Danijah Fluellen slides into the bag on a stolen-best attempt during a game earlier this season at Capital City High School. (Greg Jackson/News Tribune)
Linn shortstop Ava Warren watches the ball into her glove as Capital City’s Danijah Fluellen slides into the bag on a stolen-best attempt during a game earlier this season at Capital City High School. (Greg Jackson/News Tribune)

LINN -- The two seniors on the Linn softball team were the only players born the last time the Lady Wildcats made the Final Four.

Now the largely underclassman-led roster is set to bring a state trophy home for the first time since 2005.

“We’ve had some really good teams in the last 18 years,” Linn coach Ryan Rost said. “But they haven’t quite made it. This is my fourth year coaching and I’ve had some really good teams that just haven’t worked out the way they have and the effort and energy that these guys bring every single day, I mean, they deserve to be here. For them to be representing our school and representing the softball program, it’s a huge deal.”

Rost said the attitudes of his players is what sets them apart from previous successful Linn teams, shown in the team’s past two games.

Linn’s young team has had a tough road to get to its first Final Four in 18 years, outlasting New Bloomfield 15-12 in the Class 2 District 3 Tournament championship, then needing to come back from a 6-0 deficit to beat Elsberry 7-6 in eight innings in the state quarterfinals.

“They jumped on us early and they hit the ball really well,” Rost said. “… Then Sophie (Voss) settled in and started holding them scoreless for a few innings. I kept telling them, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of game left.’ Then we got to the fifth inning, and I told them, ‘All we got to do is score one or two, we break this zero and we might be able to get to their nerves a little bit.’

“We scored a couple and then we were able to take advantage of a couple of their mistakes and clawed our way back in. Tied it, then got to the eighth inning and had the top of my lineup up. Got the first girl on and I knew one of my girls following her was going to drive her in.”

Now that tough road takes the Lady Wildcats to Springfield and Killian Softball Complex for a 1:30 p.m. game today against Chaffee for a chance to play in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. championship against the winner of South Harrison and Carrollton.

“We’re trying to mainly focus on this game,” Rost said. “If things go well in the first game, then I’ll start reaching out and see what I can find out about whoever we’re going to be playing. But I preached to these girls all year, one game at a time, so I’m trying to keep that mindset too.”

Linn’s powerful offense has led the Lady Wildcats to a 24-6 record, with an average of 9.4 runs per game and 14 games with at least 10 runs, including two games scoring 20 or more.

“We’re scoring a lot of runs and our defense is solid,” Rost said. “As long as we keep hitting the ball like that and kind of keep having that focus at the plate and that drive, our pitching and defense will keep us in games and give us a shot to win.”

Freshman second baseman Kenzy Hackmann, who will hit second, leads the team with a .463 batting average (44-for-95) with 22 RBI, nine doubles, three triples and one of the team’s five home runs along with a team-high 18 stolen bases.

“She had a fantastic year,” Rost said. “She’s the one that had that game-winning hit in the quarterfinal game. … As far as the two-hole goes, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Freshman shortstop Ellie Dudenhoeffer, who will hit third, is second at .436 (44-for-101) with a team-high 34 RBI, nine doubles and five triples.

“Another great talent,” Rost said. “She’s got a great glove at shortstop, can make any play, any throw. Then at the plate, she’s fearless, she can hit the ball anywhere.”

Voss, a sophomore pitcher and the No. 4 hitter, has compiled a .429 average (36-for-84) with 22 RBI, four doubles and two triples.

“She was always driving in runs or moving base runners,” Rost said.

Along with those three, sophomore pitcher and second baseman Ava Warren (39-for-105) will lead off, junior first baseman Hannah Hackmann (32-for-89) will hit fifth, junior catcher Kylie Peters (28-for-82) will hit sixth, senior left fielder Katlyn Starke (21-for-66) will hit seventh, junior center fielder Kiana Hostetler (24-for-70) will hit eighth and junior third baseman Emma Monnette (20-for-71) will round out the lineup in the nine spot.

But the offense isn’t the only strength for Linn, Voss has taken the lead in the circle to help lead the Lady Wildcats to allow only 3.7 runs per game.

Voss has 96 strikeouts and 36 walks in 114 innings to lead to a 14-5 record and a 2.95 ERA.

“She’s my workhorse pitcher,” Rost said. “… Pitches in a lot of huge games, pitched in the district championship and quarterfinal game and has done a really good job.”

Voss will go up against a powerful Chaffee offense averaging 8.9 runs per game with 12 performances of more than 10 runs and two of more than 20.

“They’re a good-hitting team from what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen,” Rost said. “They’re very comparable to us as far as, I think one-through-nine is going to put the ball in play. They’re going to make us make plays. I think they’ve got speed, they’ll probably try to play a little small ball.”

Chaffee’s offense is led by senior center fielder Ayne Held with a .487 batting average (37-for-76) with nine RBI and a team-high 18 stolen bases. Junior Reese Van Pelt is next with a .429 average (33-for-77) with a team-high 36 RBI, a team-high 11 doubles and one of the team’s three home runs. Freshman pitcher Carlyanne Cossou is batting .425 (34-for-80) with 10 RBI, while freshman third baseman Paizleigh Graham has a team-high two home runs, a .400 batting average (30-for-75) and 40 RBI with nine doubles.

In the circle, Cossou has been the leader with a 14-3 record and 109⅓ innings pitched. She has allowed only 25 earned runs for a 1.60 ERA, while striking out 141 and walking 41.

“We’re gonna have to be disciplined at the plate,” Rost said. “And just take good at-bats and take what we can get and be aggressive when we’re supposed to.”

Though its their first appearance since 2005, this will be Linn’s third showing in the Final Four. The Lady Wildcats will look for their first state championship, after placing third in both 2005 and 1998.

“One of the big things I’ve been telling them is to just enjoy the moment while we’re down there, but to know it’s a business trip while we’re there,” Rost said. “We either have to define the moment or the moment will define us. If we let the environment get after us and we get nervous, it’s gonna take us off our game.

“This is just a great team. This has been a hell of a run this year. The amount of work and effort and growth that we’ve seen out of these girls from Day 1 to now, it’s just been tremendous and they deserve to be here.”

The semifinal winners will advance to the Class 2 state championship, which was originally scheduled for Saturday but has been rescheduled for 7:30 p.m. today due to the projected weather forecast in Springfield.

The semifinal losers will play for third place at 7:30 p.m. today in the final game of the Final Four weekend schedule.