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      Final Four forecast

      What a season it's been for Blair Oaks, Centralia, South Callaway and Westran.

      This conversation is not about football, however --- although those teams are a combined 29-3, they're all state-ranked and all are ranked no lower than No. 3 in our KRCG Prep Power Polls.

      This conversation is about their much fairer classmates.

      Those four Central Missouri schools, plus New Franklin (which doesn't play football), will be shooting for softball gold during the state tournaments Friday and Saturday at the Killian Softball Complex in Springfield.

      Here is the schedule for Friday's semifinals:

      CLASS 3

      Blair Oaks (24-4) vs. DeSoto (28-2), Field 3, 11 a.m.

      Centralia (25-2) vs. Harrisonville (19-6), Field 4, 11 a.m.

      CLASS 2

      South Callaway (23-4) vs. Kelly (19-7), Field 1, 10 a.m.

      CLASS 1

      Westran (22-5) vs. Walnut Grove (15-8), Field 3, 2 p.m.

      New Franklin (22-7) vs. Maysville (17-6), Field 4, 2 p.m.

      Those are the games. Here's how they got there.


      WHERE TO START? This answer is easy, as the Centralia Lady Panthers are gunning for the third straight state championship.

      If the mission is accomplished, Centralia would be only the second school in state history to pull off a three-peat (Palmyra, 2006-08.)

      "They're a long-time rival of ours," Centralia coach Jill Angell said, "so this was one of our goals. They would love to have a third straight championship.

      "This group of kids is very determined. We've had a great season, great kids, great community support, great parents, great assistant coaches ... it just makes my job really easy."

      You could say things are going great.

      While each team has its own identity, there's been a constant theme in this chase for three straight --- Baylee Douglas, as the senior righthander has been the anchor for the Lady Panthers during this wonderful stretch of softball.

      In last year's state championship game, Douglas tossed a three-hitter and struck out six in a 3-0 win over Grain Valley.

      Three-hitter? Hah, that's nothing.

      In the 2011 title game, she threw a no-hitter and struck out 10 in a 2-0 win over Chillicothe. And if not for one error, she would have had a perfect game.

      "She's meant so much to the program," said Angell, in her 15th year at the Centralia helm.

      Here are Douglas' career stats ... are you ready for THIS? I don't think you are.

      62-3, 0.67 ERA, 715 strikeouts.

      Simply staggering.

      "She's a great kid, a very humble kid," Angell said. "She's not flashy, she's not showy, so we're not having to deal with that."

      The pivotal moment this season came in the Lady Panthers' quarterfinal game against St. Dominic, which had the bases loaded with only one out in the bottom of the seventh.

      The game was tied 1-1.

      "It looked like a no-win situation; we were in a terrible situation," Angell said. "But this shows how so very determined Baylee is.

      "She ended up throwing back-to-back strikeouts."

      In turn, Centralia ended up scoring five runs in the top of the eighth to win it 6-1.

      "The momentum really shifted," Angell said. "It shows how gritty they are."

      Catcher Sydney Creel leads the offensive charge, as she's batting .488 with eight home runs and a school-record 43 RBI. Alli Massey is hitting .432 and has scored 36 runs, while Haley Schmerahl is batting .371.

      "I feel like our kids are all on the same page," Angell said. "They're not all in the same grade, but they get along really well and back each other up. They trust each other, that's a huge thing.

      "They know they've got each other's back."


      LURKING ON THE OTHER SIDE of the bracket is the Blair Oaks Lady Falcons, who are back in the Final Four for the second straight year and the seventh time overall in the 18-year reign of coach Sharon Buschjost.

      Last year's dream ended with a 7-1 loss to Centralia in the semifinals. And this season started how last year's ended, with a loss to Centralia --- this one 1-0 in eight innings --- in Game 2.

      That, however, is one of the few bumps in the road for Blair Oaks.

      "You expect to have some lulls during the season, but this team just hasn't had that," Blair Oaks coach Sharon Buschjost. "It's been a season-full of highs."

      The Lady Falcons' other three losses were to Class 4 schools --- Eureka, which is in the Final Four; Oakville, which lost to Eureka in the quarterfinals; and Seckman, which lost to Oakville in the district title game.

      Those are what you'd call quality losses.

      There's a reason Blair Oaks has been so successful, Buschjost says. Good people + talent = a good team.

      "Being successful is two-fold, I think," Buschjost said. "You have to have talent, but sometimes the team concept isn't there. But that's never been the case with this team.

      "They're good people. You can have a lot of talent with personalities that maybe aren't easy to work with, they're not total-team players. But this team is just good at everything they do, good students, good hearts ... they understand the importance of getting along."

      Still, you have to have the talent, and this team has plenty of it. Get this, the batting average is .413 --- that's the TEAM batting average.

      Remember, this is fastpitch softball, not slowpitch.

      "It's very seldom that you have a starting nine with these kind of averages," Buschjost said. "They love to hit the ball, and they've put a lot of time and effort into it. That's certainly paying off."

      Junior Julie Duffner is a "hitting machine," Buschjost said, as she's batting .543 with 34 RBI. Sophomore Payton Staggs is hitting .459 with eight home runs (tying the school record) and 39 RBI, senior Sara Jones is batting .459, and senior Blake Burks is at .436.

      "Our offense has been really good," Buschjost said. "Our one through nine hitters, nobody is batting below .330."

      On the mound, Staggs has been good all season. In the postseason, however, she's been great.

      She's tossed four straight shutouts and carries a string of 26 straight scoreless innings into the Final Four. For the season, she's 19-3 with 10 shutouts and a tidy ERA of 1.22.

      "She's improved so much, so quickly," Buschjost said. "There was some concern early in the season with the number of pitches she was throwing, more walks than she was happy with and more walks than we were happy with.

      "But she works so hard, and she's done what she's needed to do. She wanted to improve, she tweaked her delivery a little bit, and it's made a tremendous difference."

      Next up is DeSoto, which brings a gaudy mark of 28-2 into the semifinals. But there's also this --- those two losses were to Battle and Sullivan, two teams the Lady Falcons lambasted by a combined 30-2.

      "Winning is fun," said Buschjost, who directed Blair Oaks to the state title in 2009. "Once you're there, you just have one thing in mind, and that's to do something really special.

      "Each win just gets better and better."


      THE WESTRAN LADY HORNETS seem to be getting hot at the right time, as they'll take a 10-game winning streak to Springfield. No. 10, however, was anything but easy.

      In Saturday's quarterfinal game against Knox County, Westran was held hitless through five innings and trailed 1-0. But the Lady Hornets exploded from there, scoring seven runs in the sixth --- with help from three errors --- and three in the seventh to win going away, 10-2.

      Westran --- which was 3-16 just five years ago --- finished with 10 hits, including two doubles and two RBI from Mackenzie Hombs. Hombs also got the win, tossing a one-hitter and allowing just one earned run.

      On the other side of the Class 1 bracket, the New Franklin Lady Bulldogs will be making their sixth Final Four appearance, thanks in large part to a wrecking-ball offense.

      New Franklin has piled up 58 runs since the start of the district tournament, a span of five games, including a 9-7 win over St. Elizabeth in the quarterfinals.

      As a team, the Lady Bulldogs are batting .319. They have eight seniors on the roster, including pitcher Kalani Pihana, who will likely get the nod into Thursday's semifinal bout with Maysville.

      If both area teams win, they'd meet for the state championship at 4 p.m. Saturday. And it would be a rematch --- New Franklin walloped Westran 10-0 on Sept. 5 in New Franklin.


      IT'S A GREAT TIME to be a Bulldog.

      The football team is 6-1 (the lone loss to Class 4 Battle), state-ranked and tied for No. 1 in our Small School Power Poll, and the baseball team won a state championship just last year.

      That was the school's first state championship --- in any sport. It was also the school's first Final Four appearance --- in any sport.

      The South Callaway Lady Bulldogs have made it two, as they'll make their semifinal debut on Friday.

      "It's something that's brought a lot of excitement," South Callaway coach Dave Odneal, "and we're looking forward to going down there and representing our community, the school and the team the best we can."

      So far, so good ... the Lady Bulldogs have won seven of their last eight and 20 of 22.

      "We were competitive with some very good teams all year," said Odneal, in his 20th year at the South Cal helm. "We've hit the ball well ... it's all come together.

      "We knew we had the potential to have this happen."

      Third baseman Karli Leeper leads the charge with a .518 average, followed by pitcher Abby Bartley (.437), shortstop Bailey Ward (.427) and catcher Anna Bartley (.390).

      "We've had some really good production from a lot of players," Odneal said.

      On the mound, call this Abby road --- senior Abby Bartley is 20-4 with a 1.21 ERA.

      "Softball can be even more pitcher-dominated than baseball and she's had a great year," Odneal said. "She's had a good defense behind her and she's taken advantage of that."

      Now, Odneal hope to take advantage of this shot at gold.

      "It's going to be a challenge, there's no doubt about that," he said. "It just depends sometimes on how the ball bounces.

      "But our girls are really looking forward to it."