The long wait for getting back to the Final Four is over for the Incarnate Word Academy softball program.
It’s been 17 years since the Red Knights last reached this point in the season. They’ve been close recently.
In 1999, Incarnate Word lost 3-2 to Marshfield to finish second in the state tournament held in Columbia.
Now, the Red Knights have battled their way back to the Final Four.
“We are very excited,” Incarnate Word coach Rachel Gill said. “We have been one win away for the last two years so we are very excited that we finally did it.”
The Red Knights (21-6 ) will play Cape Girardeau Notre Dame Bulldogs (26-3) at 11 a.m. Friday (Nov. 20) at the Killen Sports Complex in Springfield in a Class 3 semifinal game. On the other side of the bracket also at 11 a.m., Monett (20-10) will battle Smithville (23-7). The two winners will meet for the state championship at noon Saturday. The two losers will play at 3 p.m. Friday for third place.
Admission is $8 per day.
When season began with this group, Gill said this team certainly had the ability to become a Final Four team.
“I knew that we were capable of being a Final Four team,” Gill said. “It was going to be determined by how hard they were willing to work.”
In each of the last two years, Incarnate Word fell in the quarterfinal round. Each time, Warrenton stopped Incarnate Word from gaining a state berth last fall.
The Red Knights had all but one starter back this season. Some were on the team two years ago as well.
Gill did not use that as motivation for this season.
“We try not to dwell on the previous years, but the fact that we have lost the quarterfinal game to Warrenton the previous two years is always in the back of our mind,” Gill said. “We are always looking to improve our finish from year to year but we also know that just getting to the quarterfinal game is not an easy task.
“So we just took the season one game at a time.”
In the sectional round, Incarnate Word faced Rosati-Kain and won 16-0.
“They showed me that they were not the kind of team that just expected to win because they beat Rosati-Kain earlier in the season,” Gill said. “They showed that they were willing to give everything they have every game regardless of the opponent.”
In the quarterfinal, the Red Knights had a new opponent. Incarnate Word met St. Dominic. Incarnate Word beat the Crusaders 6-2 in the second game of the regular season.
Gill knew better than to overlook St. Dominic.
“We definitely expected a tough game and that is what we got,” Gill said. “St. Dominic was one big hit from winning that game. We knew we had to stay sharp on defense and score good amount of runs to win that game.”
The Red Knights did score enough runs and earned a 6-3 victory. Abby Armentrout and Grace Paez each drove in three runs to power Incarnate Word to the win.
“They are the third and fourth hitters in my lineup for a reason,” Gill said. “They have the ability to hit the ball hard and far. It was really a team effort offensively. Other players got on base which allowed Abby and Grace to hit them in.”
Pitcher Lexi Becker threw well on the mound again. She improved to 16-1 with the victory.
“She has been really good this year,” Gill said. “She had great stamina and can locate pitches really well. She has been a bit leader all year.”
Now, it’s on to Springfield.
To play for the state championship, Gill said her girls can’t change how they do things.
“We have to stick with our game plan and trust that we are more than prepared to step on that field,” Gill said.
Regardless of the outcome, Gill said the season has been a success.
“This group is incredible. Not only are they fun but they are extremely hard working and very caring individuals,” Gill said. “They are pride themselves on playing for each other and for the school they represent. They make me a very proud coach.”