NEW BLOOMFIELD — The offense didn't have the solid hits early but never faltered. The defense didn't make some plays to give up the lead.
But the New Bloomfield Lady Wildcats never lost confidence.
The Lady Wildcats fell behind, rallied, then trailed again before coming back Wednesday in the Class 2 quarterfinals against Elsberry to win 7-6 and advance to their first Final Four since 1996.
Now the Lady Wildcats (16-9) will be going to Springfield to play Marceline (26-3-1) on Oct. 29 at 7 p.m., New Bloomfield coach Dara Reinkemeyer said she can exhale after a back-and-forth game that saw four lead changes. Regardless of whether she witnessed a high or low moment, she said the confidence and belief in her players never wavered.
"We knew that they could do it and they put the pieces together," Reinkemeyer said. "That game was full of excitement and nerves. The biggest thing, though, is they never let any of that hold them back. They kept fighting, and they ultimately persevered at the very end."
New Bloomfield started the scoring in the first inning as Brooke Talbot — who finished 2-for-4 with three RBI — drove in Brooklynn Smith. But Elsberry (19-8) proved early it wasn't going away as Payton Robinson drove in two runs to give the Lady Indians their first lead.
The Lady Wildcats were quiet at the plate the next three innings against Elsberry pitcher Addyson Steele. In the meantime, Elsberry added another run in the third and were threatening for more after loading the bases with four straight hits. Peityn Thomas — who allowed four earned runs, 12 hits and totaled seven strikeouts in seven innings — needed to make a pitch and that pitch found the outstretched glove of senior Asya Nichols as she stepped on third to record the inning-ending double play.
With the Elsberry lead still at 3-1 in the fifth, Kamryn Herron and Smith — who finished 3-for-4 with two runs scored — hit their way on before Asya Nichols drove them in on a double to tie the game. Talbot then belted a two-run home run to give New Bloomfield a 5-3 lead.
Reinkemeyer said her lineup never lost focus and became accustomed to the pitcher to the point the Lady Wildcats were spraying hard-hit balls all over.
"After the first couple innings, I thought our batters did a good job of adjusting to the pitcher," she said. "After we did that, we started hitting the ball more solidly. When we hit the ball solid, we can put together a bunch of runs when we need to."
And New Bloomfield did need more after some errors were committed in the sixth to force Thomas to record more outs but not before Elsberry scored three more runs — with two scoring on a two-out hit — to make it 6-5.
Macie Abbott led the New Bloomfield sixth with a double but made an impact with her legs and mind, Reinkemeyer said. After advancing to third on a passed ball, Abbott danced around third on the next two ground balls, forcing the Lady Indians to choose between the out and the lead. Each time, the Lady Indians had neither and trailed 7-6 after run-scoring hits by Herron and junior Avery Nichols.
"We have players that have very high softball IQs so they're going to work the fielders, pitchers and catchers just to see what can happen," Reinkemeyer said. "If we can make something happen, we will."
It was now New Bloomfield's job in the seventh with a one-run lead to keep something from happening.
A ground ball was hit to senior Kamryn Herron at first, and while slightly bobbled, she scooped the ball in her glove before diving to touch the base. One out.
After a base hit just out of reach of Abbott's glove, Asya Nichols snatched another line drive out of the air before firing to first to turn her second double play of the game, and the final play before the Lady Wildcats pounced onto the field to celebrate.
"We knew they were ready and told them from the get-go they were the only ones that were going to be able to beat themselves," Reinkemeyer said. "We did have a few errors, but the great thing is they learned from them, didn't make the same mistakes and they didn't let them hold them back."
Those defensive plays to end the game were huge, Reinkemeyer said, but the Lady Wildcats couldn't have been in that position without the play of every girl, including Thomas' 1-2-3 inning in the sixth to follow the final lead change of the game, the defense covering the ground it needed to cover and Talbot not having a single passed ball at catcher.
One-by-one, fans and community members walked up to Reinkemeyer to hug and congratulate her. When she had a break, she said seeing everyone on the field and in the stands celebrating was the perfect finish to a great night.
"The biggest thing is looking here and seeing the community and the kids and all that so happy," she said. "That is more important than words can even say."