SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Tears were shed, blood was spilled, and when the dust had settled the Helias Lady Crusaders were Class 3 state softball champions.
Helias out-fought, out-foxed and out-pitched the Sullivan Lady Eagles, winning 3-1 Saturday evening at Killian Softball Complex in Springfield. It's the program's first state title since claiming the Class 4 championship in 2005.
Senior Lauren Howell threw 4 2/3 innings of relief, with five strikeouts and two hits and an earned run against. Starter Alexa Rehmeier threw 2 1/3 innings with two hits and three walks against and three strikeouts.
As the players, coaches, families and fans mingled after the win in the same venue on which the Lady Crusaders beat Incarnate Word less than 24 hours earlier to advance to the championship game, tears of joy were shed.
And those tears were made all the more meaningful by whom Helias had just won against.
"Our freshman and sophomore years, we played Sullivan in the district championship and lost," senior left fielder Rylee Kolb said after the win. "So it was really great to come out on top for once."
The Lady Crusaders (26-6) were able to do so because of Kolb's efforts in the title game. The Drury commit was 2-for-2, had two of her team's three hits, and had a walk, an RBI and a run scored.
Helias coach Chris Wyrick's message to his team before the game was the old adage, 'It's hard to beat a team three times.' Sullivan upset Helias 7-5 to win the district title in 2016, and beat the Lady Crusaders 3-2 the following year. The Lady Eagles went on to finish runner-up in 2016 and lost to Monett in the quarterfinals in 2017.
The two programs hadn't met since. And after beating Blair Oaks three times in one season — 5-1 and 11-4 early in the season, then a nail-biting 1-0 win for the Class 3 District 9 title — Helias knew how hard it was. The Lady Crusaders set out to prove Sullivan (25-6) would not win three consecutive meetings, and they were proven to be right.
"I thought something clicked about a month ago," Wyrick said. "And then once we got through districts, they really got the look in their eye that they knew where they were going to go and what they were going to do, and man, they did it.
"I'm just really happy for them, because they've endured a lot, they've had some ups and downs this year," he added. "We were kind of doubting, you know, 'Could we do this?' But they did. They did, and nobody can ever take it away from 'em."
Knowing how it felt to be hunted by the Lady Falcons earlier in the season, Helias decided to play the role of the hunter and came out swinging in the bottom of the first inning.
Taylor Woehr hit a leadoff single that bounced off the glove of Sullivan second baseman Payton Counts as she tracked back to make a play. Ella Meyer laid down the first of her two successful bunts in the game to move Woehr over, and Kolb drew first blood with a single to right on the eighth pitch of her first at-bat.
"Starting the game like that was incredible," Kolb said.
Helias fought and fought against Addison Purvis, Sullivan's leading pitcher and hitter. The Lady Crusaders had eight at-bats go six or more pitches, and five of those came on the first time through the order.
Purvis threw 113 pitches in a complete-game loss, allowing three hits, two earned runs while walking three and striking out four.
The Lady Crusaders added two more runs in the bottom of the fifth. Holly Hentges started the inning with a hit by pitch, her second in as many games in Springfield, and stole second base, one of four for the team in the game. Woehr bunted Hentges over, and then Wyrick called for a squeeze play standing next to Hentges in the third base box.
"He gives the squeeze," Hentges said, mimicking the sign, "and he looks at me and he says, 'You've got this. You know you've got it.' And then the whole time, he gets so anxious, he was like, 'Go! Go, go!' I was like, 'Coach, she hasn't pitched it yet.' Then when Ella bunted it down, I knew she was going to get it down, I had no doubt in my mind, so I just took off."
Meyer's squeeze was successful, as Sullivan catcher Kayla Ulrich threw to first for the second out of the inning. Hentges was safe, but did not slide and stepped over the plate coming home. If the home plate umpire noticed, he didn't say anything, and Hentges touched home crossing back to collect Meyer's bat.
Kolb followed with a hard-hit single to left that got past left fielder Sophia Weirich and landed Kolb at third base after the error.
Kenley Haslag drove Kolb in with a dribbler that first baseman Hannah Cox booted.
The Lady Eagles did not go down without a fight. Cox led off the top of the sixth inning and crushed a home run over the fence in left-center that easily cleared the 220-foot distance from home plate.
Sullivan threatened throughout the game, starting in the top of the first inning. After a pop out made on a difficult play by third baseman Abigale Hoelscher to start the game, Purvis singled and Cox walked to put a runner in scoring position. Rehmeier struck out Hanna Johanning on five pitches and Kloey Blanton on nine pitches to get through the first inning in 34 pitches.
Rehmeier worked a clean second, but after a leadoff single to the hole at short by Madyson Stahl and a flyout, Rehmeier threw three straight balls to Purvis, a power hitter. The third got by catcher Riley Heckenkamp and moved the runner to second, so Helias elected to put Purvis on first and pitch to Cox, who also walked after barely missing on a three-run home run that curved just foul while sailing above the left field pole.
Howell entered the game in the top of the third with the bases loaded and one out. She thew two quick strikes to Johanning, but the third pitch also squirted away from Heckenkamp to the backstop. Heckenkamp, a Missouri commit, chased it down, turned and fired to Howell, who caught it and applied the tag to Stahl's abdomen as she slid for the second out of the inning.
"That was planned," Heckenkamp said, straight-faced, of the passed ball, before breaking out into laughter. "No, it wasn't. The riseball jumped a lot at the last second, which I wasn't expecting, so I just hustled back there, get it up to Lauren as fast as I can, and just get the out. It was very scary, but we got it done."
Howell struck Johanning out on the next pitch to end the threat.
"It was nerve-wracking," Howell said. "But I knew I wanted to do it for Alexa and I wanted to get us out of that, and I was going to do everything I could to do it."
The Lady Eagles nearly tied the game in the top of the fifth. Ulrich smoked a ball to deep center but the wind, which was blowing in and across the field from right, and cool air helped deaden the ball, and Woehr settled under it. The Helias outfielders played deep, no-doubles defense all afternoon against the heart of Sullivan's order.
But, as usual, pitching and defense got the job done for the Lady Crusaders. A two-out single in the top of the fourth, Ulrich's flyout and Cox's home run were the only balls hit out of the infield against Howell, who, along with the Helias defense, ended the sixth inning with three consecutive groundouts.
Howell struck out the first batter she faced in the top of the seventh, fielded a tapper back to the circl for the second out and struck out Stahl looking to end the game.
"Very bittersweet," Heckenkamp said. "We're very, very happy, it's just, it's been a tough time for Helias lately. So now having this win just helps pull us all together."