(Josh Mills, Staff)
BENTON -- For the second consecutive season, the Kelly Lady Hawks are heading to the Final Four in softball. The Lady Hawks have a record of 22-4 on the season as they head into their Friday morning contest with the Marion C. Early Lady Panthers. The Lady Panthers ride into St. Joseph with a 21-8 record.
To get to the state playoffs, Kelly has traveled through Twin Rivers in sectionals, 7-0, and Fatima in quarterfinals, 7-1. Marion C. Early defeated Diamond 4-3 in sectionals and Hollister 7-1 in quarterfinals.
"They're (Marion C. Early) pretty much the same team they had last year," said Kelly head coach Rhonda Ratledge of her first round opponent. "They may have graduated one or two seniors from last year, but they pretty much have the same group coming through as we did. Hopefully they're nervous because of what we did to them last year."
In 2007, the Lady Hawks won the consolation game by a final score of 4-1.
"We'll go back and look at what they did last season," Ratledge added. "Then we'll try to do the best we can do, especially without being able to see them."
Last season Kelly tagged the Lady Panthers for eight hits including 2-for-4 performances by Londyn Backfisch and Sarah Ruff. Ruff now plays with Three Rivers Community College while Backfisch is currently in her junior season with Kelly and will be the starting shortstop and leadoff hitter on Friday.
The 2008 playoffs feature a different look for Kelly as Danielle Dock comes in as the ace pitcher. Dock was with the squad last year, but following a transfer in from Notre Dame, Dock was forced to travel with the junior varsity group the entire season. The 2008 season has fared well for the junior pitcher as she's been a part of the majority of the 22 wins throughout the fall season.
"I think she learns each game she throws," said Ratledge of Dock. "Coming in from a new school last year and not being able to play varsity at all her sophomore season, I think she's taken some big steps and she's overcome quite a bit. There's six seniors and you're a junior starting pitcher, that's a lot of pressure."
As for the seniors, Heather Beggs, Katee Moore, Brittany Brantley, Casey Kern, Jessica Riley and Lana Whitworth are used to performing at a high level for Ratledge as they came into their freshman season in 2005 following the Lady Hawks' most recent state title (2004).
Beggs has spent time on the pitching rubber this season as well and also saw time in the state tournament last season. Ratledge said that Beggs has done 'an outstanding job' while pitching for the Lady Hawks, but said that taking her out of left field presents a problem.
"If I pulled Beggs out of left field I don't know who I'd put out there," Ratledge said.
Moore leads the team in average as Ratledge said she comes into Friday's action batting .468 and has totaled zero errors in her regular starting position at second base.
Ratledge said that she relies on the lineup as much as she does pitching to win games, and stated that the entire lineup has performed well throughout the season.
"I think we've improved our lineup from last season's team," she said. "We've had a lot of strong hitters in the last part of the season. At the start of the season you never know what's going on. We actually settled down early in the season on the lineup that we've used."
"We didn't do a whole lot of small ball until the end of the season," she went on to say. "Our third, fourth and fifth batters, that's where it's paid off. Usually they are your power hitters. But, it's been that way all the years I've been coaching. The girls know that coming in. You've got to be able to do both, bunt or hit, when the time comes."
As far as the team leader goes for the Lady Hawks, Ratledge said that she doesn't see one girl standing out above the rest, but stated that she hopes that each girl does her own part each and every inning.
"As a coach, you hope that everybody is a team leader," she said. "Everybody has their own position and you hope that they can lead from their spot. Brantley leads behind the plate, Dock on the mound, Moore at second base and so on. If those girls aren't leaders at their own spots, then we're pretty much done."
The entire squad will have to come together as a unit to fend off the Lady Panthers, which would in turn present a meeting with defending champion Palmyra or Mid-Buchanan who has been successful in the past.
Palmyra defeated Kelly in the 2007 semifinals by a score of 7-0 due in part to the Lady Panthers' starting pitcher Taylor Baxter who gave up just one hit to the Lady Hawks in seven innings. She struck out 11 of the 22 batters she faced and will be returning this season to the Final Four as a junior.
Palmyra is looking for its third consecutive title while the Mid-Buchanan Lady Dragons are in search of their first title since 2006. The Lady Dragons have 10 titles in the bag already while the Lady Panthers have three.
Kelly is looking to add to their two state titles as they head into Friday's game with Marion C. Early. The Lady Hawks have two fourth place finishes, six third place finishes, one second place finishes and two titles, 1997 and 2004.
"We're ready to take better than third place this year," said Ratledge.
Defending champion Palmyra, with a 22-2 record, has quite a bit of their championship squad returning, but Ratledge said that her squad looks nearly the same on paper as well.
"They're (Palmyra) just like my girls," said Ratledge. "They're ball players and when you're ball players anything can happen. They can go down just like we can. Any team is beatable. That's what you have to remember as players."
The Lady Hawks hope to wrap up the coveted tournament with a title, and will square up on Field 2 with Marion C. Early on Friday morning at 11:30 a.m. in the first semifinal game of the day in Class 2. Palmyra and Mid-Buchanan will follow on Field 4 at 12:30 p.m. All games are being played at Heritage Park in St. Joseph.