(Photo by Brent Shipman, Staff)
SPRINGFIELD -- After a one year absence from the Class 2 final four, the Kelly Lady Hawks will find themselves in familiar territory this weekend as they head to Springfield for the biggest two games of their season.
"We've practiced the last three days and the girls are real excited," Kelly head coach Rhonda Ratledge said. "They're happy to be there and they know that the top four teams are going to be good.
"We just have to play our best and that's why we're at the final four, because we have played our best all year whether it's defensively, offensively or pitching."
For the Lady Hawks, the trip to play in the final four has become a near annual right of passage as Kelly has made the semifinals in five of the last seven years.
Though each of those previous trips have ended with Kelly out of the top spot, the Lady Hawks are confident that if everything goes right they can capture their first state championship since 2004.
Before the Lady Hawks can start thinking about the title game, they'll face their first test of the tournament when they take on Brookfield in the semifinals on Friday at 11 a.m. at the Killian Softball Complex.
Coming into the matchup with a 25-5 record, Brookfield seems to match up well against Kelly (22-4) as both teams have relied on an explosive offense to get through the sectional and quarterfinal rounds.
Each team has scored a combined 25 runs during those games while the Lady Hawks hold the edge in runs allowed, having only given up only one run total in wins over Twin Rivers and Hartville.
In that same span, Brookfield has allowed six runs beating Bishop LeBlond 13-2 in sectionals and Fatima 12-4 in the quarterfinals.
"In our scouting report it said that they've really come alive toward the end of the season and that's where it counts," Ratledge said of Brookfield. "I think all the way up and down their lineup they can hit so they sound a little comparable to us because we hit all the way up and down our lineup with our girls. Hopefully, we'll just be the ones to come out on top."
If the Lady Hawks can find a way to get past Brookfield they'll move on to the title game Saturday at noon where they would see either Pleasant Hope (25-4) or defending champion Palmyra (25-4).
One advantage Kelly will hope to use to their benefit is the wealth of experience that their five upperclassmen bring to the table after a run to state in 2010, where they finished fourth.
That group includes seniors Darbe Backfisch, Michaela Gean, Sydney Vinyard and Jessica Worth as well as the team's lone junior, Jade Rampley.
"I have my four seniors and my one junior that have already been to the finals," Ratledge said. "That makes these freshman and sophomores really, really excited. To just kind of see what it's all about and to get a little taste of what it's like to be one of the top four dogs."
As much experience as they have coming back, however, Kelly will also rely on several underclassmen at key spots, much as they have all season. That includes the entire top of the order as their top two hitters in the lineup, Samantha Ratledge and Morgan LeDure, are both sophomores.
Freshman Alexis Dock occupies the No. 3 spot while sophomore Stephanie Worth bats cleanup.
So far you'd be hard pressed to notice any difference in age as the younger girls have played like seasoned veterans during their team's postseason run.
Over the past two games, those four girls have combined to go 17 of 29 at the plate with 13 runs batted in. They've contributed four extra-base hits, included a three-run home run by Samantha Ratledge against Hartville.
"I don't see the girls on grade levels when we're out there playing," Rhonda Ratledge said. "I just see their abilities and a lot of these girls who are freshmen or sophomores don't play like freshmen and sophomores.
"They play like the upper age groups. I look at their abilities and what they're capable of. These girls are playing some really, really good ball."
Rhonda Ratledge added that if the Lady Hawks are to get off to a strong start this weekend they'll need that same spark from the top of the order that they've gotten use to.
"If you can get your top two or three batters hitting with intensity it's just like electricity that goes all the way through the lineup," she said. "That sets them on fire. They know that, 'Oh, she hit, then so can I.'
"It definitely does set the mood and hopefully we'll have that on Friday."
On the pitching front, Dock and sophomore Kristy Brucker will be expected to continue anchoring the pitching staff this weekend. The two have thrown basically every inning for Kelly this year and both had a role in shutting out Hartville in the quarterfinals.
"They both have brought us all the way through the season," Rhonda Ratledge said. "So we'll probably see both of them throwing up there. Both girls have been working and preparing this week."
If the Lady Hawks can work their way past Brookfield back to the championship game on Saturday, it will mark Kelly's first appearance since 2008 when they finished second.