Don’t stop believing: Canton softball team rallies to earn spot in state championship game

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The Canton softball players celebrate with Tigers coach Kristyn Arens, center, after winning the Class 1 state semifinal against Marion C. Early on Friday in Springfield, Mo. | Photo courtesy Mary Chiles

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Even when trailing Marion C. Early by two runs in the fifth inning of Friday’s Class 1 state semifinal, the Canton softball players showed confidence.

“I thought we were gonna win it from the beginning,” sophomore shortstop Kadee Guilfoyle said.                                                                                   

That faith was rewarded with a 3-2 victory at the Killian Softball Complex and a berth in the state championship game. The Tigers will face Polo at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, looking for their second state championship to go with the one they won in 2017.

“We are excited,” Canton coach Kristyn Arens said. “I know we can do it if we just put our minds to it.”

When asked about how to keep her players calm during a state title game, she had a simple reminder.

“If something goes wrong, you always have your breath,” Arens said. “Then just go play fearless and just play to win.”

The Tigers (26-5) showed no fear despite a fourth-inning jam and later a two-run deficit.

The Panthers had their best chance to pounce in the fourth. After two singles and a sacrifice bunt on which Canton failed to record an out, Marion C. Early loaded the bases with nobody out in a scoreless game.

Then Canton hurler Emma Hultz went to work. She struck out three batters to end the threat, crediting her off-speed pitches for the success.

“It was either my changeup or my rise ball that were working today,” Hultz said. “I threw it constantly.”

She explained a rise ball floats up, as opposed to a curve ball that drops into the strike zone. 

“I throw it like a 2-seam and spin it,” Hultz said.

Canton will face Polo in Saturday’s Class 1 state championship game at 2:30 p.m. at the Killian Softball Complex in Springfield, Mo. | Photo courtesy Mary Chiles

Still, Canton couldn’t plate any runs either. The Panthers broke through in the top of the fifth, reaching on two soft singles by senior Lauren Taylor and junior Maggie Painter. Both runners advanced a base on a poor throw to first, and Hailey Presley singled to make it 2-0.

The raucous Canton faithful stayed upbeat on a sunny, windy day. They were rewarded. In the bottom of the fifth when senior Nariah Clay lifted a home run that just stayed fair down the right-field line to cut the Panthers lead to 2-1.

“I was struggling a little bit the first two at-bats,” Clay said. “I had been practicing (hitting) inside pitches all week because I struggle to slap inside pitches. And I was going up there like, ‘Base hit, that’s all I need’ because we have two outs.’” 

Hultz was thrilled to see the lead cut in half.

“I was kind of upset for a little bit (at 2-0), but then once Nariyah hit that home run I was pretty excited,” Hultz said. “I knew that we were gonna come back.”

Canton tied the game in the fifth when junior Kinsey Biggerstaff doubled past the diving center fielder, scoring senior Madison Gorrell. Both runs came with two outs.

After Hultz threw a 1-2-3 inning, the Tigers broke the tie in the bottom of the sixth when sophomore Allie Ruffcorn, who had singled, scored on a sacrifice fly by sophomore Kielyn Ott to make it 3-2 Canton. Hultz finished off Marion C. Early to send the Tigers to the state title game.

Hultz finished with eight strikeouts and allowed just five hits.

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