SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – When reminded about the scene following the 2017 Class 4 Missouri State High School Softball Championship, Blue Springs South coach Kristi Williams chuckled.
At the time, the moment was anything but funny to Williams and her Jaguars. After a 2-0 loss to the Marquette Mustangs last year, Williams needed a moment to collect her thoughts before talking to reporters.
Upon exiting the main field at the Killian Softball Complex in Springfield, Williams walked toward the light pole on the northwest side of the stadium. She leaned her head against the pole, grabbing the sides of it with her hands as she blankly stared at the ground for a few seconds.
How could this have happened again? It was a year after South made it to the state title game for the first time in 2016. The Jaguars fell 4-3 to Troy Buchanan in that game.
In back-to-back seasons, the Jaguars came just one game short of winning a state championship. Two years in a row, the Jaguars experienced heartbreak. Two straight seasons, Williams and her players were in tears as Missouri State High School Activities Association officials put second-place medals over each of their necks.
This year, South made it back to the state championship game after beating Marquette and got a rematch with Troy Buchanan. Afterward, during the medal presentation, Williams and senior pitcher Easton Seib had tears running down their cheeks again. This time it was different after 2-0 victory over the Trojans Saturday at the Killian Complex.
“Tears of joy, definitely,” Seib said. “I am proud of all of us. I am glad we could finally do this and glad to be a part of it.”
The previous Jaguar teams that made the state championship game were loaded with upperclassmen, but this year’s squad was a bit different, much younger. Half of the roster consisted of underclassmen. Only four players got playing time during the 2017 state final four. Sophomore Tori Bradley and freshmen Elle Smith and Bailey Brumley were regular starters.
“I think that made it sweeter because no one thought we would be here,” Williams said of having a younger team than the past two years.
Even with a younger team, 2018 was all about unfinished business for South’s only two seniors – Seib and shortstop Abby Sciara. The duo had one thing on their minds when they made the state final four – revenge.
“Last year, I just felt like we all gave up then and we were done with it,” Sciara said. “This year, we really stepped up and showed fight this year.
“Of the two teams that lost state before, there were just four of us. We had new starters on the team this year and we told them we wanted revenge, me and Easton. And I am so happy we could do that.”
South scored four runs in the top of the seventh to erase a 5-2 deficit against Marquette and eventually won 6-5 in Friday’s semifinal, avenging one state title loss.
Then, as fate would have it, Troy Buchanan stood in the way of the team’s ultimate goal. Seib made sure her Jaguars didn’t end the season disappointed a third time. She tossed a two-hit shutout and allowed just three base runners in perhaps the most masterful performance of her career.
She wasn’t overpowering. Seib had only three strikeouts but drew soft contact throughout her seven-inning gem. The final out was a softly hit ground ball toward first baseman Bailey Brumley off the bat of Katie DeBold. She raced to tag first base as she beat a diving DeBold to the bag.
A loud cheer erupted from the South crowd in attendance. Junior Addie Lightner and Seib leaped in the air. Lightner and junior Sophie Lopez slammed their gloves to the dirt and embraced with a hug. Then all of the players mobbed Seib after she slammed her glove and pitching mask to the ground.
They jumped up and down patting Seib as she shielded herself. After the celebration settled down, all of the South coaches gathered for a group hug. Meanwhile, Seib teared up. She covered her face with both hands. She then cupped her hands over her mouth and hunched over as Williams came to Seib to put her arm around her star pitcher.
The Jaguars’ revenge tour was complete.
“We both needed (a hug),” Williams said. “We needed to get through it. I gave her a hug and we both said at the game time, ‘FINALLY!’”
All year long, Seib was considered the “mom” and the “cheerleader” of the Jaguars (23-6) – the one who would pick up her younger teammates when they were down. And she picked them up one last time – for the first softball state title in school history.
“Did she not pitch the most amazing game you’ve ever seen?” Williams asked rhetorically of Seib’s gem. “She pitched amazing. The girls knew she wasn’t going to go after them to strike them out. She was going to make the best pitch she thought she could make. She knew they had her back.”
Seib made it look easy. She surrendered only two singles in the fourth inning. With runners at second and first with one out, a soft ground ball off the bat of Cameryn Patterson resulted in Sciara throwing out the lead runner at third for the second out. Buchanan’s Kelsey Sachs then flew out to center field as Seib escaped the only threat she faced.
And all of that happened while Seib fell behind in the count on multiple occasions. Each time, she kept her composure, threw strikes and managed to get soft contact.
“When I fell behind, I felt like one base runner matters a lot in this game,” Seib said. “I couldn’t let them on base. I just pumped them in there and if they hit it, they hit it. I’ll let my defense work.”
In the fifth inning, the 4-foot-11 Smith made a leaping catch in left field on DeBold’s sharp line drive to prevent another Troy threat. It was one of the few plays that wasn’t routine for South’s defense.
“Elle is amazing,” Seib said. “She’s a little fireball. She has so much energy. When she caught that ball, I was so proud of her.”
Added Smith: “I ran in a little too far because on that play, I am supposed to back up. I was like, ‘Oh crap! I have to do everything I can to catch the ball.’ I just leaped up as high as I could and hoped it was in my glove. And I was like, ‘Thank goodness!’ There was so much adrenaline. You can’t explain it.”
While Seib dominated, the win wouldn’t have been possible without Lightner. The junior entered Saturday’s game sporting a gaudy .514 batting average for the season. In the semifinals, Marquette elected to intentionally walk her four times. She wondered if she would get a chance to swing the bat against the Trojans.
She did in the first inning, with Regi Hecker at second base. Lightner jumped on a hanging curveball from Kiersten Nixon, who had a 1.25 ERA coming in, at the top of the strike zone on a 2-2 count and deposited the ball over the left-center field fence for a two-run shot. That proved to be the only runs her team needed.
“I was wondering if I was going to get an at-bat, because they put me on yesterday all four times,” Lightner said. “I just swung with all I had, trying to get runs across.”
Because of that swing and Seib’s dominance, Williams was able to finally able to heal the wound left over following two state championship losses.
“To even get here is difficult, and to put in the work some of these kids did for the last two to three years, to get here multiple times, and to finish it this time, it’s a big sigh of relief,” Williams said.