The Blair Oaks Falcons are going back to the Final Four, but this time, it will be in a different part of the state.
After winning the 2019 Class 3 state championship in O'Fallon, the Falcons will travel today to U.S. Baseball Park in Ozark for the Class 4 Final Four.
"Our schedule is preparing us for where we're at," Blair Oaks coach Mike DeMilia said, as the Falcons will face the Hollister Tigers at 6:30 p.m. in the state semifinals. "We've played good teams all year. We haven't been perfect, but it's prepared us for this.
"Our guys have the mentality that there's nobody on our schedule that we're afraid of."
It will be a state-ranked matchup, as Blair Oaks (27-5) is ranked No. 3 by the Missouri High School Baseball Coaches Association and Hollister (25-5) is No. 8.
The Falcons, the District 8 champions, have yet to give up a run in the Class 4 state tournament. Last week, Blair Oaks went on the road to beat Boonville 6-0 in the sectionals, then dominated in a 9-0 win last Friday against St. Charles West in the quarterfinals to reach the Final Four for a fourth time in program history.
In their previous three trips, Blair Oaks won state titles in 2006 and '07, as well as two years ago.
"We're just a confident team," DeMilia said. " I think we've set ourselves up to do pretty well, but it remains to be seen."
Hollister defeated sixth-ranked Aurora 2-1 to win the District 11 Tournament, the Tigers' first district title since 2006. Hollister then beat Seneca 4-2 in the sectionals and edged top-ranked Springfield Catholic 6-5 in the quarterfinals, which was played at U.S. Baseball Park.
This is the Tigers' third trip to the Final Four. They finished in third place in 2001 (Class 2A) and again in 2006 (Class 2).
"We have a ton of respect for them, because just by looking at their scores, they play a good schedule," DeMilia said of Hollister. "They beat Springfield Catholic twice.
"Talking to a few people, they said the top of their lineup is really good, they swing the bats, they score some runs. That's going to be a huge challenge for us, trying to hold their offense down."
DeMilia also noted Hollister has a couple of big arms for starting pitchers, but the Falcons are unsure of who they will see — Clay Kemp or Landon Richards — on the mound today.
Blair Oaks has plenty of confidence in its starting pitcher today. Left-handed sophomore Wil Libbert has a 7-1 record — winning each of his last five starts — with a 1.91 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 51 innings.
Libbert threw six shutout innings in the sectional win at Boonville, striking out 12 and scattering four hits.
"I like our pitching staff as a whole, but there's no doubt Wil is our best guy," DeMilia said. "Wil is the guy we're going to put the saddle on and I fully expect him to pitch great.
"The good thing about him is his demeanor allows him to pitch in a big game and not get rattled and not get nervous. He was nervous for the Boonville game, but after about the third pitch, he was fine."
The Falcons will have plenty of options in the bullpen, but win or lose, DeMilia said senior left-hander Gavin Wekenborg will be the starting pitcher Thursday. He pitched a two-hit shutout and struck out 12 against St. Charles West.
Offensively, Reid Dudenhoeffer leads the Falcons with a .427 batting average and 32 RBI, while Wil Libbert is next with a .411 batting average and 25 RBI.
Hayden Salmons (.362), Josh Isaacs (.362), Lane Libbert (.360), Ian Nolph (.306) and Dylan Hair (.304) are all starters that are hitting better than .300 this season for Blair Oaks.
"We have a deep lineup, we have good hitters one through nine," DeMilia said. "Sometimes we've had some issues with hitting with runners in scoring position, but we did a better job with that against St. Charles West."
Today's other semifinal game is scheduled for 4 p.m. between the second-ranked Kennett Indians (24-8) and the unranked St. Joseph Lafayette Fighting Irish (19-7).
DeMilia said the Falcons have done a little scouting on both teams. St. Joseph Lafayette has senior left-handed pitcher Brayden Luikart, who signed with Oklahoma, while Kennett already has multiple Division I commits. Among the team's leaders are Reese Robinett, the SEMO Conference player of the year, and Payton Hienley and Koby Gates, the SEMO Conference co-pitchers of the year.
All season long, DeMilia said Blair Oaks hasn't been out to "defend" its state title. That opportunity was taken away when the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19.
But once the team resumed activities a year ago today with its summer baseball schedule, the current Blair Oaks senior class set its sights on getting back to the Final Four, something the Falcons believed they could have accomplished in 2020.
"They're a great group," DeMilia said of his seven seniors. "This is the group when I started as the head coach. I coached Ian and Cade (Stockman) and Lane on the varsity as freshmen, and I watched the freshmen a lot, when you add in Levi (Haney) and Gavin and the other guys.
"This is just a good group of committed kids who do the right thing, they play the game the right way. I don't like to think about the fact that this is the last two games with them, but they're definitely a group that's going to be missed. I'm going to savor the next 14 innings we have with them."
The Class 4 third-place game is scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday, followed by the state championship game at 6:30 p.m.