First inning struggles ail Lions softball in season-ending loss

May 2—EDMOND, Okla. — Kylee Jacks came up with two outs and runners on first and third for Missouri Southern State University in the top of the seventh inning on Thursday.

The Lions were in need of a hit as they trailed 3-1 with the 2024 softball season on the line in the quarterfinals of the MIAA tournament in Edmond, Oklahoma.

Jacks drilled a ball into center field. Despite No. 1 seed Rogers State University's center fielder Lana Gass being positioned more toward left field, the ball hung up long enough for her to track it down in deep center field and make the catch on the run to claim the win for RSU.

"She hit it great," MSSU head coach Hallie Blackney said. "I'm proud of our offense. We outhit them. They were just able to scratch across a few more than we could."

The loss ends the Lions' softball season as only the top eight teams in the Central Region will make a regional tournament and the Lions (33-22, 12-14 MIAA) were not featured in the most recent top 10 rankings.

The first inning of the game started with a leadoff double from RSU's Donaldson. MSSU starter, freshman Lily Rand, walked the next three batters as she struggled to find the zone.

Blackney then went to another freshman in Kiki Pickens with the bases loaded and no outs. Pickens wasn't expected to be used on Thursday after Blackney noted Wednesday that she probably wouldn't be available.

Pickens came in and immediately got a ground ball to third base that Abby DeSanto fired home for a force out. The next batter hit a slow roller to third base that DeSanto scooped up and glove-flipped home to catcher Kate Thurman.

RSU's Abbey Rogers was running hard down the line and just beat the throw to make it 2-0.

A third straight grounder to DeSanto led to a third run as this ball forced the Lions' third baseman to move toward the middle of the field so she took the guaranteed out at first. Pickens ended the inning with a strikeout.

'When the stage gets big'

"When you reflect on the seven innings, we had a good six innings but there was one inning that wasn't good," Blackney said. "It's kind of how this year has gone. In order to be a championship-level program, you have to be consistent in everything you do. When the stage gets big you have to stay within yourself and do what got you here."

Southern didn't get its first hit until the third inning when senior Adrianna Young slapped a ball through the right side of the infield for a single. But RSU's starter Sara Llamos-Howell ended the inning by getting Jacks to fly out to left center field.

Llamos-Howell went the distance for the Hillcats and finished with just two strikeouts — both in the seventh inning — but only allowed one run on seven hits. She was able to work out of jams and limit the damage.

"I just tried not to get too rattled too much and throw strikes," Llamos-Howell said. "And trust my defense. They made good plays all day."

RSU head coach Andrea Vaughan talked about the confidence to stick with her starter late in the game.

"I feel like she — right now — is the most seasoned. She's great under pressure," Vaughan said. "Sara has such pinpoint accuracy I just felt like I could stick with our game plan if I could just keep her calm."

The biggest jam was in the last inning. DeSanto led off the seventh with a single into left field. Carsen Tinkler followed her up by slapping an 0-2 pitch on the outside into right field just over the first baseman's head. DeSanto went first to third on the hit and slid around a tag to avoid being tagged out after a well-placed throw from Donaldson made it close at third.

The next two batters, Thurman and Young, both struck out swinging. That's when Jacks came up and just missed driving in two runs with her long fly ball.

"Hallie Blackney and I just laugh when we face each other in the playoffs because we've faced each other so many times," Vaughan said. "This matchup was nothing new. We knew it would be a battle to the end because it always is. It's just a testament to how tough our conference is and our region is. Games like this only prepare you for the long haul."

It was a pitcher's duel after the first inning as MSSU's Pickens held RSU to just one hit while walking one batter through two innings of work. Kara Amos only allowed two hits and walked two batters in four innings.

The Hillcats (41-10, 23-3 MIAA) tallied just four hits but drew six walks and four in the first inning. One Hillcat was hit by a pitch from Pickens. The Lions had seven hits and drew one walk.

No. 9 seed MSSU ran into a bit of bad luck in the fifth and sixth innings. In the fifth, DeSanto led off the inning by smashing a ball past third base and into the corner down the left field line for a double.

With one out, Thurman struck a line drive right back up the middle that Llamos-Howell caught right above her shoe top for the second out of the inning. The inning ended with a pop fly in foul territory that was caught to retire Young.

In the sixth, Jacks led off with a single. Yazmin Vargas followed it up by lining a single off the glove of RSU's third baseman to put runners on first and second. Then, Taylor Nuckolls lined the ball right at the shortstop and Jacks was too far off of second base to get back before McKayla Carney tossed the ball to Chelsea Spain for the force out at second base.

"It's just part of the game. In order to win, and win at a high level, you have to have some luck and the ball has to bounce your way. For whatever reason, it didn't go our way in those types of situations this year," Blackney said.

Later that inning, Vargas stole second base, which was important as Kara Amos lined a single into center field and Vargas' speed allowed her to score from second on the hit.

DeSanto went 2 for 3 at the plate to lead the Lions. Jacks went 1 for 4, Amos 1 for 3, Tinkler 1 for 3, Young 1 for 3 and Vargas 1 for 2 with a walk.

"It's hard to lose. But this program itself is just super special and it goes to show how gritty we are and how hard we work. I'm very proud of this group and I'm very excited to see where this program goes," Vargas said.

Vaughan said, "You have to tip your hat to them and their pitching staff," about MSSU keeping RSU's offense at bay after the opening inning.

Vargas added thoughts about her time at MSSU: "It's meant everything. These last four years have probably been the best four years of my life and I'm very thankful for the people in this program. They've made it very special. From teammates to coaches to professors and anybody on campus, man, the Lion community is very special. I'm so proud to be a Lion."