The Highland High School softball team had extra incentive to win its season opener at O’Fallon as coach Greg Exton was on hand to watch his team while battling to overcome a cancer.
Mission accomplished. The Lady Bulldogs fell behind 2-0 in the third inning, but rallied for 11 unanswered runs on 12 hits while also getting sound pitching and defense en route to mauling the Panthers for an 11-2 come-from-behind victory.
Highland senior third baseman Reily Kassay, who is also the team’s leadoff hitter, helped the ignite the offensive assault after going 2-for-4 with a double, one walk, two RBIs and two runs scored.
“We came to today’s game with the mentality that we were going to win for Greg,” Kassay said. “We stayed focus, had positivity on and off the field, and never gave up after O’Fallon took a 2-0 lead. I am very proud of the coaches and my teammates.”
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Also collecting two hits apiece for the Bulldogs’ vaunted offensive attack were senior first baseman Hannah Miener, sophomore shortstop Lily Garbett and junior left fielder Kourtney Zobrist.
“We worked so well as team and had a very positive, level-minded approach to getting behind so early,” said Miener, who went 2-for-3 with one walk, one RBI and one run. “We wanted to win, because coach Greg was here and he was our motivation. If he can fight, we can fight back, too. We are playing very well as a team, and I can’t wait to see what the season holds for us.”
Garbett ended up going 2-for-4 with a double, a pair of RBIs and two runs scored, while Zobrist also went 2-for-4 with a double and two runs.
“It was a really good thing to see that we didn’t let ourselves get down after they came out and scored two runs first,” Garbett said. “We really proved that we are gonna work together as a team this year. We had so much positivity even after our hitting was down to start the game. But we automatically shook it off and played for who we all are playing for — the wonderful coach Greg.”
The Bulldogs roughed up two Panther pitchers. Katie Moore was beat up for five earned runs on five hits and three walks in 3 1/3 innings and Hayleigh Juenger was touched for seven runs (two earned) on five hits and four bases on balls in 3 2/3 innings.
In addition, O’Fallon committed four errors. HHS had none.
Conversely, Highland senior left-handed ace Aubrey Hacke was stout in her first start of the season. She went the distance and surrendered only two earned runs on five hits and three walks while punching out five.
O’Fallon’s only damage against Hacke came in the bottom half of the second inning when Taylor VanAusdall drew a two-out walk and then Jade Williams, who went a perfect 3-for-3 in the game, followed with a two-run homer to center field.
However, the Panthers’ lead was very short-lived as Highland (1-0) rallied for a game-turning five runs in the top of the third.
The Bulldogs were far from done there as they also tacked on runs in the fourth (three), fifth (one) and seventh (two) innings to blow the game wide open.
In the third frame, Highland’s rally also started after the first two batters were retired. Kassay got it ignited by coaxing a two-out walk. Junior center fielder Hannah Sullens followed by lining a double to center field.
After Hacke walked to load the bases, Garbett smacked an RBI single to center to plate Kassay and cut O’Fallon lead in half and then Sullens scored on a wild pitch to tie the game at 2-2.
Back-to-back errors on the next two hitters allowed three more runs cross the plate and the Bulldogs jumped out to a 5-2 advantage.
After Hacke retired the Panthers in order in the home half of the third, Highland pushed across three more tallies in the top of the fourth.
Kassay got it going again, this time with a one-out single to left. She ended up scoring on another O’Fallon error.
Garbett knocked in a run with a double to left and then scored Miener’s RBI single to left to extend the margin to 8-2.
In the fifth, Highland got another run with the help of an O’Fallon error. Zobrist reached on an error and later scored on junior right fielder Addison Rinderer’s RBI-ground out to shortstop.
The Bulldogs scratched across their final two tallies in the seventh on three doubles. Zobrist led off with a double to left. Rinderer then slugged a one-out double to center and Kassay capped off the scoring with a double to chase both Zobrist and Rinderer home with the game’s final runs.