REPUBLIC — One sequence that stood out during Ozark’s Class 5 District 5 opener Thursday was pitcher Kendall McCoy stepping out of the center circle, firing a softball to catcher Natalie Morgan and all but demanding another ball.
Turns out there were two different brands of ball in play and McCoy most definitely had a preference.
“I didn't like the Rawlings, it felt different,” McCoy said. “I’m sure nothing is different with the balls. But I feel more comfortable throwing the Dudley than the Rawlings.”
McCoy has been throwing a Dudley all season, and was dominant with it Thursday while recording a career-high 13 strikeouts in No. 5 seed Ozark’s 8-2 blowout of No. 4 seed Kickapoo.
The Rawlings FPRYL is designated as the official ball by MSHSAA for the 2023-25 seasons. The Dudley Thunder Heat had been the official ball for the 2019-2022 seasons. District coaches opted to give teams the choice to use either ball.
“We’ve not played with a Rawlings all season. Kickapoo was throwing Rawlings in and we were throwing Dudleys in,” Ozark coach Jimmy Nimmo said.
It’s actually surprising McCoy prefers the Dudley Thunder Heat. Most softball aficionados consider it the more lively ball off the bat than the Rawlings. The Lady Chiefs never got much of a chance to find out one way or the other, with McCoy’s changeup resulting in repeated swings and misses.
“She had a fantastic game,” Nimmo said. “Her changeup these last two weeks, that's been the big difference. She's spotting pitches well and keeping hitters off balance. They don't know what's coming.”
McCoy felt it was to her advantage this was the third meeting between Ozark and Kickapoo. The Lady Tigers swept the Lady Chiefs, with the regular-season scores being 15-9 and 7-5.
“Since we had already played them twice, I already knew who the good hitters are,” she said.
Likewise, Kickapoo no doubt knew who Ozark’s top hitters are and Lady Chiefs pitcher Allison Scott overall did a credible job against Morgan, center fielder Audrey Carlton, third baseman Kelsie Batey and shortstop Kaylee Linnebur.
Through three innings, the teams were scoreless.
In the fourth, Ozark left fielder Lyla Wood delivered an RBI single and McCoy followed with a two-run single. A third run scored on McCoy’s hit when Kickapoo misplayed the ball in the outfield.
Wood and McCoy bat eighth and ninth in the Lady Tigers' lineup.
“It helps to be at the bottom of the lineup,” Wood said. “You get to see all the pitches and everyone’s feedback helps.”
By hitting 8-9, Wood and McCoy feel most pitchers think they can simply throw a fastball by them.
“Yeah, sometimes I do, too,” McCoy said of her own mindset when pitching to the bottom of the order. “I like hitting last. I saw mostly fastballs today, I saw one (changeup) and didn't swing at it.”
The diminutive McCoy finished with three well-placed hits against a drawn-in Kickapoo outfield and a shift to the left side.
“My goal when I see that is to go up the middle, like I did my second at-bat,” McCoy said.
“Kendall could easily be my leadoff or two-hole (hitter),” Nimmo said. “(Opponents) take her for granted because she's a nine-hole hitter — 'Let's take it easy.' But she has a good chance at getting on most every at-bat.
“Lyla has been in the lineup the last two or three weeks on a consistent basis and has looked better this past week,” he added. “She can hit for power and has some speed. If Lyla and Kendall can do damage at the bottom of the lineup, that sets the stage for when we get back to the top of the lineup.”
Ozark got a boost from pinch-hitter Emily Griest. She had the game’s hardest hit by lining an RBI-double off the left-center field fence in the fifth.
“I told myself to be aggressive and swing at every strike I see,” Griest said. “(A 3-2 pitch) was right down the middle, maybe a little inside. I usually don't hit inside pitches well. But I got my hands around it and was able to get the sweet spot of my bat on it.”
Griest is one of Ozark’s most powerful hitters, but at times has been lost in the shuffle when the Lady Tigers lean toward a small-ball approach. No matter, she has maintained a positive attitude and fared well as a pinch-hitter.
“I’m happy for her,” McCoy said. “That was good, timely hitting.”
“I'm ready to be there for the team and produce,” Griest said.
“She’s one of the hardest workers we have and has one of the best attitudes we have,” Nimmo said. “She didn’t get to play a whole lot throughout the season, but has come through in a lot of pinch-hit opportunities. She can flat-out hit when she squares it up.”
Linnebur capped Ozark’s hit parade with a solo homer in the seventh.
Kickapoo (26-8) was guilty of four errors.
Ozark (23-11) has won six straight and 10 of its last 11.
“It's getting fun,” McCoy said.
Ozark moves on to face No. 1 seed Willard (23-11) in a semifinal at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Willard pitcher Hannah Burks, a Missouri-Kansas City commit, has enjoyed a standout senior season even while dealing with a recurring ankle injury. She was in an immobilizer boot during the pre-season and aggravated the injury at Ozark during a 7-2 Willard win in the teams’ regular-season meeting.
“Burks spins the ball similar to the Kickapoo pitcher,” Nimmo said. “I think we were nervous when we played (Willard) the first time. That's not going to happen the second time.”