The Three Rivers softball team is so far ahead of where they expected to be this season, it’s no surprise they’re paying little attention to where they’ve already been. That attitude could serve the Raiders well as they head into a high-stakes rematch with 14th ranked Indian Hills in a District J best-of-3 series beginning at noon Saturday at Rains Field. Game 2 is set for 30 minutes after the conclusion of the opener, and if necessary, the deciding Game 3 will take place at noon Sunday. The winner of the weekend set will advance to the NJCAA Division I Softball Championship on May 16-19 in St. George, Utah. Three Rivers and Indian Hills were ready to take their first steps toward St. George today, but a rain-filled forecast delayed the series one day. That development is likely A-OK with Three Rivers (41-14), which gets an extra day of preparation as it enters its first-ever district series after defeating Crowder on Sunday to win the Region XVI championship. On Saturday the Raiders will shift their focus to Indian Hills (46-10), a team fresh off its fourth straight Region XI title and owner of a victory over Three Rivers earlier this season. The Warriors powered past the Raiders, 10-5, in the final game of the Crowder Bash on March 11 in Joplin, but Three Rivers’ players say they’ve moved on from that months-old loss. “We’re trying to remember, but also let go (of that loss), because we aren’t the team now that we were then,” said Three Rivers freshman first baseman Allison Pingel. “We’re so much better, and we’ve become so much more of a family since then, and we’ve overcome obstacles people did not expect us to get past.” “I think we’re going to reset when we play them this time,” added freshman shortstop Kristyn Carpenter. “When we played them the first time, it was super cold … it was freezing … I mean, we couldn’t feel our hands. I think this time, anyone can win and anything can happen.” “Anything can happen” could certainly be considered Three Rivers’ mantra this season. Null, in his second season at the helm, took the Raiders from a 30-26 record in 2017 (which earned him the Missouri Community College Athletic Conference Coach of the Year award) to a region title this spring. Despite showing promise in his first season, Null admitted he had modest goals for his ballclub entering 2018. “This (team) is really just (made up of) our first recruiting class,” Null said. “So we’re a very freshman-heavy group, and obviously we didn’t have these types of expectations. We hoped to win a regional, that was our goal, and to be able to compete, but to be able to pull this off at this point — we’re a little ahead of schedule.”
The Raiders’ quick rise has been fueled by a potent offense and strong pitching, led by Pingel, who has slugged her way to a team-record 19 home runs to go with a teamhigh 78 RBIs and a .469 batting average. Carpenter has contributed with a .404 average and 58 RBIs to go with a team-leading 65 runs and 38 stolen bases, while catcher Gracie King trails only Pingel with 59 runs driven in to go with a .383 average. And Three Rivers plays deep, as its offense is hitting .350 collectively this season while getting on base 41 percent of the time. “It takes everybody to hit,” Carpenter said. “So once one person gets on (base), it starts a chain reaction, and I think that’s what we thrive on.” The Raiders may need to dig a little deeper this weekend with sophomore leadoff hitter and center fielder Randi Scruggs out for the postseason after tearing the MCL in her right knee following an outfield collision in the region title game. “She’s been a big part of our program ... she’s one of the sophomores who’s still here and has helped us get to where we are,” Null said. “Losing her was just a punch to the gut for everybody.” Scruggs ended her season hitting .409 with 61 runs scored and a team-high 46 stolen bases (48 attempts). Three Rivers hopes to further soften the blow of Scruggs’ lost offense with a stingy pitching staff. Freshmen Summer Shockley (24-7, 251 strikeouts with a 1.98 earned run average in 194 2/3 innings pitched) and Macy Rogers (11-2, 66 strikeouts, 3.88 ERA in 74 innings) will look to capitalize on any run support the Raiders can provide this weekend. Shockley will take the circle for Game 1 with Rogers stepping in for Game 2. They’ll have their hands full, as the Warriors will make the 7-hour trip from Ottumwa, Iowa, with a slew of sluggers. Indian Hills has feasted on the production of sophomores Erin Kuba (13 home runs, 23 doubles, 50 RBIs, 54 runs scored, .425 average and a .494 on-base percentage with just 6 strikeouts) and Chayanne Bergert (13 home runs, 48 RBIs, .364 average and a .389 OBP). Freshman Lexi Smith has brought her big bat, as well, as she’s smacked 12 homers with 32 RBIs while posting a .389 average and a .450 OBP. The Warriors also counter strongly with a pitching staff that features three hurlers with 12 or more wins. Indian Hills coach Laura North — in her fourth season as head coach — said she won’t make her decision on who will start in Saturday’s games until the morning before Game 1, and that decision could be a difficult one. Sophomore Abby Straight owns a 14-2 record with 120 punchouts and a 2.29 ERA in 101 innings of work. Fellow sophomore Olivia Goodale is 12-5 with 60 strikeouts and a 2.08 ERA in 107 2/3 innings. Freshman Carlyn Stanley shores up the tough trio with a 13-2 record, 109 strikeouts and a 2.54 ERA in 99 1/3 innings. North, whose team is looking for its 20th appearance in the national tournament, said the district series is its own entity, and that the two clubs’ previous meeting provides barely a glimpse of what to expect this time around. “It’s nice that we’ve had an opportunity to take a look at them, but I think both teams have probably gotten better over the course of the season. I’m sure they have, and I definitely know we have,” North said. “We’ve done a pretty thorough scouting job. We’ve watched the games, we watched the series against Crowder.” Three Rivers has played well at home, and owns a sparkling 22-1 mark at Rains Field. That could play into the Raiders hands as they host a Warriors team that has played better at home (22-2) than it has on the road (16-7). Still, North believes a travel-heavy schedule has her team prepared for their latest trip. I think we’ve prepared all season for this,” North said. “We’ve gone to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. We travel a lot in preparation for this. I’m not a real believer in home-field advantage except that maybe you’re a little more comfortable.” On the flipside, the Raiders are relishing the opportunity to host the critical series. “It’ll be great to actually be in my own batter’s box again, and be on our own dirt,” Pingel said. “It’s a sense of home, and we’ll have our families and friends there to support us and so many people supporting us who know what we’re capable of.” And even if the outcome isn’t what Three Rivers is envisioning, all will not be lost for the rising Raiders. “We’ll compete … I have no doubt in mind my our kids will go out and compete,” Null said. “If we play well, we’ll have a chance to win … if we don’t, we’ll go home. But either way, it’s been an outstanding year and a big step for our program.” Tickets for the weekend series are $5 for adults and $3 for students. Entry is free for children 6 years old and younger.
Joe Alberico - Daily American Republic