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Lady Bears Win District Title



Jason Hoekema
MANSFIELD – It took two days to get the Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 2 District 4 trophy back to Ava when weather halted play in the bottom of the third last Wednesday.
The Lady Bears held a solid lead, but the final 13-3 victory over Willow Springs would have to wait until the clouds provided relief on Thursday.
The Lady Bears made sure to finish the game in five innings, clearing the hurdle from the previous season and winning the district title before the Lady Bears bid farewell to one of the most prominent groups of senior girls in school history.
Willow Springs threatened early, attempting to get into Ava’s head early on, tacking on two runs on two outs in the top of the first.
Hunter Strunk, who had just delivered her 18th strikeout of the tournament to Aleisha Shanks, let one hit go on a grounder to left field by Rylee Scarbrough on the 1-2 pitch. No big deal for the Ava defense with two outs.
No one could have predicted that Willow Springs’ cleanup batter, Madelyn Fair, would belt one out of the park on the first pitch she saw come from Strunk.
The two-run homer over the fence and onto the road behind right-center was felt by the team and their fans.
Being taken yard by a batter is a tough mental shock to shake for any pitcher, even seasoned professionals. Strunk wound up walking the fifth batter on the 3-1 count.
The Ava infield was there for Strunk, though. She delivered a total of 19 strikeouts at the district tournament and allowed only two walks through a total of 15 innings pitched.
Kaylee Pendergrass put one in play on the 2-2 pitch and Dailyn Stanifer was there along the second base line for the grab and toss to Paris Henry covering second.
The 4-6 fielder’s choice was all Ava needed to get out of the inning and give Strunk a pause to clear her mind.
The team went on to back Strunk with five runs in the bottom of the first inning. Lexie Gastineau put a bunt in play and turned on the jets, making the single. She took second and put in her pocket, as she often does.
Stanifer won a full-count battle, drawing the walk putting two on and the signal for the infield fly rule.
Keeley Akers got a chunk of the first ball thrown at her, but it went up for out one. Fortunately for the Lady Bears Gastineau and Stanifer had advanced to third and second, respectively, and were threatening to put runs on the board.
Sara Mendel, batting cleanup as the designated player, put one in play but beat the play at first, juicing the bases. With just one out it was not a matter of if, but how many runs Ava would put up.
Henry smacked a running grounder down the line and over the third bag into the outfield allowing Gatineau and Stanifer to score on the two-RBI double.
Lilly Honeycutt grounded on the infield and was put away at first, making it a 1-2 sacrifice as Mendel covered the final stretch to home plate making it a 3-2 ballgame for Ava.
Kaelyn Stillings lined one into the open spot behind second for the RBI single, bringing Henry home.
With two outs the inning was going to close with several defensive options on the infield. Willow Springs’s shortstop Rylee Scarbrough made the play on a ground ball by Hannah Forrest but overthrew first allowing Forrest aboard and Stillings home.
The inning closed with a pop-up fly ball from Mackinley Goss, but the momentum had been taken from Willow Springs with a 5-2 Ava lead.
The Ava defense came out and delivered a shutout inning against Willow Springs’ seven-through-nine with one more strikeout for Strunk.
Willow Springs returned the favor with outs on three fly balls with Ava’s top of the order retired in succession.
Willow Springs was able to add a run at the top of the third as dark clouds began to threaten from the south.
Anna Minge, Willow Springs’ leadoff, reached with a ground ball past short. Ava picked up the first out on an F8 to Shanks and Scarbrough was put away with a 5-3 sacrifice which advanced Minge to scoring position at second.
Homerun hitter Madelyn Fair traded places with Minge at second with an RBI double to deep centerfield. Khila Smith was put away with a routine 6-3, stranding Fair on the pond and stopping the run threat.
Mendel led off for the Ava Lady Bears and delivered a double to the fence in centerfield. Henry reached with a short slap toward third, beating the play to first. Honeycutt sent one deep to center and was put away, but Mendel made the sprint to home on the catch with time to spare.
Stillings reached with a 1-4 FC forcing Henry out at second. Pitching started to wane for Willow Springs with Goss drawing a walk and juicing bases.
Gastineau reached and picked up an RBI with Stillings scoring the Lady Bears’ 7th run. Just as the end appeared to be looming over Willow Springs, the darkening clouds threatened from Douglas County.
Stanifer made it on an error by Willow Springs’ third baseman Emma Roberts and Forrest scored, making it an 8-3 game for the Ava Lady Bears.
Akers took her place in the box at home and took two pitches and a 1-1 count before… boom.
Lightning was finally observed, suspending the game. With heavy rain due through the evening the game was postponed until Thursday.
The rain washed out Willow Springs’ game with two shutout innings from Ava. On the other end of that Ava played like it was a new game.
In the bottom of the fourth Ava tacked on two more runs with Henry reaching on a hit-by-pitch and Honeycutt doubling to deep left field for the RBI. With two outs Forrest smacked a triple to deep right field with Honeycutt scoring on the RBI.
Ava was three runs shy of a run-ruled championship game, which was exactly what Coach Rex Sawyer told them as they took the field in the bottom of the fifth.
Willow Springs changed out pitchers, but Gastineau bunted to third and beat the 5-3 play before stealing second while Stanifer was at-bat.
Stanifer smacked an RBI triple to the foul line in right field, adding Gastineau to the score board making it a 11-3 game.
Akers drew a walk but, in that process, Stanifer scored on a passed ball putting Ava one run away from a walk off win. Akers stole second with Mendel at bat, but Mendel flied out to centerfield. One away.
The Ava Lady Bears loaded the bases with Akers at third, Henry at second, and Honeycutt on first. Kaelyn Stillings put one in play and reached on a 1-2 FC attempt which put Akers out at home.
Bases remained loaded and with two outs, the Lady Bears needed a hero.
Hannah Forrest was the one to win this one early for the Lady Bears with a liner to right field. Ball met grass and Henry scored on the RBI single, run ruling Willow Springs 13-3 in five innings.
The 13-3 win over Willow Springs marks the first district title for Ava since softball transitioned to the Spring season in 2022.
The Ava Lady Bears improved compared to this point last year with an 18-6 record as of last Thursday. Their 2022 record was 16-8.
Ava advanced to the MSHSAA State Quarterfinals. This means the Ava Lady Bears are part of the Class 2 Elite Eight, but they have a major hurdle ahead of them as they face the Class 2 District 3 Champions.
Ava traveled to Houston to face the Lady Lions on Tuesday. Ava fell to Houston, 16-9, in an offensive spectacle with a combined 25 runs and 30 hits. The top of the order hurt the Lady Bears along with a deflating three-run homer by Katie Chipps.