COLUMBIA — Everything surrounding the Hickman softball team suggested that this was a bigger game than most.
The radio crew set up behind home plate was evidence of that, as were the crowd of bystanders that stopped to watch the game from behind the fence at Antimi Fields.
Hickman vs. Helias Catholic
WHEN: 5 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Antimi Fields at Cosmopolitan Park
The first game of the Class 4, District 9 playoffs was, in fact, more important than most. A loss would mean the end of the Kewpies’ season, as well as an exit in the first game of the playoffs for a second straight year.
This was, all things considered, the biggest game of the year for the Kewpies. But in a speech given to her team before the game, Hickman coach Courtney Haskell told her players to act as if it wasn’t.
“She told us not to think too much about it. It was just like any other game,” sophomore pitcher Riley Wilson said. “She didn’t want us to put too much pressure on ourselves. She basically just wanted us to have fun.”
Wilson, as well as the rest of the Kewpies, listened.
The sophomore pitcher breezed through Smith-Cotton’s lineup in Hickman’s 10-0 win Wednesday, giving up only two hits and striking out five over five innings. After witnessing the Kewpies’ early defeat in last year’s playoffs, Wilson wanted to be more cautious this time around.
“Last year we lost in the first round, so I just was thinking that I didn’t want to throw anything down the middle of the plate,” Wilson said. “I wanted to use a lot of movement so they couldn’t square up on it.”
The strategy worked. Wilson kept the Tigers off balance consistently throughout the game. With two outs in the fourth inning, the sophomore delivered a low two-strike fastball to Smith-Cotton rightfielder Lasey Kabler, who swung but only after the ball had already landed safely in catcher Nell Chronister’s glove.
So it went for the Tigers’ hitters.
The Kewpies’ bats produced a different result, scattering 13 hits against Smith-Cotton pitching. Chronister was a key contributor, picking up three hits, three RBIs and scoring a run.
The junior catcher had been struggling at the plate leading into the game. Following Haskell’s advice, she ignored the pressure of the moment. Before each pitch, she took a deep breath in, exhaled and relaxed.
“I finally got some hits. I had been struggling a little bit, but I finally just relaxed,” Chronister said. “I was confident up there today, so I finally got it.”
Hickman (14-12) is looking to carry that mindset into Thursday's district semifinal game against Helias Catholic. That, too, will be an important game.
The best thing the Kewpies can do is play as if it isn’t.