By Kenton Brooks
Phoenix Sports Writer
A team this young isn’t supposed to be this successful, right?
The Hilldale Lady Hornets’ fastpitch softball team has belied their age this season in qualifying for the Class 4A state tournament with a 30-5 record. Only one senior dots a starting lineup with eight sophomores and a freshman.
Hilldale coach Darren Riddle has a theory about it.
“Classifications don’t mean a lot,” coach Darren Riddle said. “Baseball and softball are different sports compared to football and basketball. It’s hard to compete with youth in football or basketball. But as long as you throw strikes, make plays and hit a little bit, you can do well in softball and basketball.”
Making its first state tournament appearance since 2009, the Lady Hornets, ranked No. 8 in the Okrankings.com poll, clash with No. 1 Cache (36-2) in the state quarterfinals at 5 p.m. Thursday at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
Hilldale has shown this season it belongs with the state’s elite.
Sure, the Lady Hornets have losses to 6A No. 2 Sand Springs and Class 3A state champion Little Axe. But they also have two wins against 4A No. 11 Fort Gibson and knocked out 4A No. 12 Poteau in last week’s regional tournament.
“Our kids benefited from playing those games,” Riddle said. “At the beginning of the season, we didn’t know what to expect from such young kids. But they’ve grown up. We have four or five players who played on last year’s (regional finalist) on this year’s team. We didn’t know what we were getting into at regionals this year, but we played well.”
Freshman third baseman McKensie Plant had four hits and drove in a run in regional-clinching 5-4 win against Poteau.
The Lady Hornets have two seniors, but first baseman Kallie Casey suffered a leg injury early in the season. That leaves Katie Keifer on the roster. She was a freshman on the 2009 team who doesn’t mind being the oldest player on the team.
“We’ve finally got everybody in the right spot and they’re playing the positions they know how to play,” she said. “Our infield, for example, has played since they were little and they know how each other works out there.”
Keifer doesn’t think her teammates will get rattled even though they’re making their first trip to the state tournament.
“I think we have a good chance,” she said. “I know Cache has a lot of slap hitters and their pitchers are pretty decent. It’s going to be a tough game, but I think we can pull it off. The one thing about our team is we don’t stop until the game is over. We’re going to keep fighting.”
Riddle smiles when someone talks about his team’s youth, knowing well about the poise within it.
“It’s an easy thing to think our players are going to be wide-eyed,” he said. “But they have played in big games this year and in summer ball. They’ve played at the Hall of Fame several times throughout their lives. It’s not like they’re walking into a stadium they haven’t played at before.
“I look for them to be excited about it and go out there and play hard.”