REPUBLIC — Third base is known as the hot corner, but the heat is most often on the shortstop amidst the ultra-quick tempo that encompasses softball.
A split-second decision by shortstop Kaylee Linnebur resulted in a fielding error that loomed large in Ozark’s 9-8, nine-inning Class 5 District 5 semifinal defeat to Willard on Saturday.
With Ozark one out away from a win in the eighth, Linnebur played back on a ground ball hit directly to her. The ball didn’t bounce as she expected it to and the misplay allowed Willard to plate the tying run and send the game to the ninth.
“I was playing back a little bit to play it a little safer and when (Willard’s Reese Anderson) hit the ball, the first bounce was pretty high,” Limnnebur said. “So, I was anticipating the second bounce (to be high). I read it wrong. I guessed wrong and it hit my thigh and I fumbled it.”
It was one of five Ozark errors.
“There were times I wasn't making plays when I should have,” Linnebur said. “That’s softball, sometimes it doesn't fall your way.”
The defending District champs on numerous occasions seemed well on their way to their third straight District final.
Ozark gained a 4-2 lead in the third, with center fielder Audrey Carlton contributing an RBI single and catcher Natalie Morgan Morgan an RBI double.
Ozark looked to add to a 5-4 lead in the fifth, but left the bases loaded.
Ozark stranded two more baserunners in the seventh.
Ozark (23-12) took a 7-5 lead in the eighth, thanks to an RBI double by third baseman Kelsie Batey and an RBI single by Carlton. But Willard tied it at 7, after starting its half of the eighth with its 6-7-8 hitters.
Ozark grabbed an 8-7 lead in the ninth when left fielder Emily Griest reached on an error and scored on an RBI-double by first baseman Kayden Miller. But Willard (24-11) put together another rally in its half of the ninth by producing three hits and two runs.
“There were definitely moments I thought we were going to get (the win),” Morgan said.
Morgan added to an ultra-impressive post-season resume and she’s still got her senior to play. As a freshman, she delivered a game-winning hit to beat Republic in a District semifinal and as a sophomore she homered to help down Nixa in a District final. She had five hits during Districts this time around, going 3-for-5 Saturday.
“I feel like the pressure makes me play better,” Morgan said.
Morgan also shined behind the plate. She repeatedly blocked pitches in the dirt.
“It was kind of stressful,” Morgan said. “But I work a lot on it and I see the ball well coming out of (Addi Lewis’) hand. Our pitchers were over-rotating their drop ball and changeup a lot of the time. Addi has a lot of spin on her drop ball. You think it's going to stay (in the strike zone) and then it drops off.”
Lewis relieved starting pitcher Kendall McCoy in the fifth. All but two of the five runs Lewis allowed were unearned.
“Addi threw well,” Morgan said. “She hit her spots and jammed them inside sometimes.”
Ozark scored seven runs against Willard starting pitcher Hannah Burks, before she was relieved after eight innings. Burks held Ozark to two runs in the teams’ regular-season matchup.
“She likes to throw inside and we've been working a lot on that in practice,” Morgan said. “She kept throwing it there and we smashed it.”
Second baseman Courtney Merrell, one of four Ozark seniors, took herself out of the game due to a recurring back injury.
Linnebur will be able to look back fondly on her senior season. After missing her junior season due to a torn ACL, she returned with much more pop in her bat. She and Batey, who played short last year, gave Ozark solid defense on the left side of its infield.
"I was willing to do whatever for the team, whether it was play outfield, shortstop or third,” Linnebur said. “First game, I was in right field and I was okay to be trained as a right fielder. The next game, (coach Jimmy Nimmo) put me at short and me and Kelsie started to figure things out together.
“i'm proud of what me and Kelsie have done,” she added. “We worked well together on the left side.”