The Tigers have had more than their fair share of priceless, edge-of-your-seat games this season. For the first time in quite some time, Marceline found itself on the wrong end of one in the Class 2 softball final four at Springfield's Killian Softball Complex on Friday.
With a deceptively-dominant 6-0 victory versus East Carter in the Class 2 third-place game, the Tigers gave the school the first bronze medal it has ever seen in softball. The game prior, the semifinal versus Palmyra, could not have been a greater polar opposite.
Of all the memorable games throughout Marceline's storybook run, its only postseason loss might have been the most unforgettable.
Palmyra, a school with eight semifinal appearances in school history and four state titles since 2006, defeated Marceline, 9-8, in the Tigers' first-ever semifinal appearance.
"That was a first-place game," Marceline assistant coach Chris Bussman said.
With both teams scoreless in the bottom of the second inning, Marceline pitcher Savanna Kelly's career ended in heartbreaking fashion when she injured her ankle running to first base. From that point onward, the dynamic changed for the Tigers.
Freshman pitcher Cassi Rodgers had been plenty impressive in the circle for the Tigers throughout the postseason, but the Kelly injury effectively forced Marceline head coach Todd Lowther to put Rodgers in the batting order for the remainder of the game.
"Cassi did her job, and I'm so proud of everyone picking each other up because she knew she had bats behind her," senior left fielder Ciarrah Bell said. "I can't imagine doing what she's been doing, controlling the game as a freshman, especially after how well Savanna had been doing in that game. I don't want to say that she's going to be really good, because she's already really good."
The game remained scoreless through three innings, and Palmyra shortstop Bailey Lovelace affected the scoreboard with a leadoff solo shot in the top of the fourth inning.
Bell added to her remarkable senior season by slapping one of her own to left-center to tie the game in the bottom of the inning.
In the fifth inning, Palmyra had the first of its two four-run innings. Lovelace raked a two-run double, and left fielder Jazlyn Gottman hit a two-run homer in the next at-bat.
The Tigers got to work in the bottom of the sixth, posting seven runs in nearly every way imaginable after Palmyra switched pitchers with bases loaded and no outs.
The Tigers scored runs, in order, on a walk, hit batsman, past ball, fielders choice, leadoff-hitter Kenzie Stahl double, and error to give themselves an 8-5 lead.
After three consecutive Palmyra runners reached to load the bases in the top of the seventh, Lovelace blasted a grand slam to right center to give her team the lead back.
Marceline senior shortstop Baylee Jobson singled to start off her team's final frame but she was stranded at second.
Palmyra notched 11 hits to Marceline's six, but committed four errors.
"We played super-tight on defense, and Marceline was quick to jump on those errors," Palmyra coach Jill Arch said. "Today was (Lovelace's) day, and there's not a lot I can take credit for as a coach. We're happy to survive. (Lowther) and those girls are doing the kind of job where I think that Marceline team can be here often."
When the third place game began, the Tigers' meeting with Palmyra seemed like a different lifetime. Marceline's trademark duguout energy was as palpable as ever. The Tigers led the whole way after Bell singled in Jobson in the top of the first inning. The Redbirds committed six errors and recorded just two hits.
Marceline recorded eight hits, including second baseman Maisie Billups recording her second and third doubles of the day. Although it scored just her team's third run, a Jobson solo bomb seemed like the writing on the wall against an East Carter team that still has yet to score a single run in its three final four appearances.
The Redbirds lost to Sherwood, 5-0, in a semifinal game contemporaneous with Marceline's.
"We had a really tough loss, but after that, we were all on the same page that only thing that mattered was the third-place game," Stahl said. "That's how this group of girls has always been. We got our minds right to come out like we've been playing all year. (Rodgers) persevered, and that win to end it is huge for her as a freshman. In the Palmyra game, we had a massive inning to rally like we've done all year, and we just came up a little short."
Marceline finishes its season 23-5, and had not lost a game since falling at home to Fayette on Oct. 3. Two of Marceline's four losses prior to its Springfield date with Palmyra were its first two games of the season.
Palmyra is 22-8 awaiting a duel with Sherwood for the state crown on Saturday at 2 p.m. East Carter's season ends 22-8.
"A game like the one versus Palmyra really hurts, and that's tough to overcome," Lowther said. "We could have just folded when we were down 5-1, but that's not what this group does. It's great to get a win to end this season after a loss like that. If there was a group that could do it, I felt like it would be this one. The second game was a great game for us -- we had timely hitting, Cassi threw well, and that's a great way to cap it.
"This program's been trending in the right direction for about the last five years, and we expect big things again next year."