When Forsyth High School’s Rachel Essary leaned into a sixth-inning pitch during Friday morning’s Class 1 District 9 championship game, she was just trying to hit the ball hard.

Frustrated over swinging under a few pitches earlier in the game, Essary was just trying to make solid contact.

She achieved that goal, sending a high fly ball to the opposite field.

Then the ball kept going. And going. And going.

By the time it clanked off the scoreboard beyond the right-field fence, the Forsyth dugout was already in the midst of a wild celebration.

Essary’s solo home run served as something of a coronation for the Lady Panthers, sparking a four-run sixth inning, turning a tight 2-1 lead into a 6-1 victory over Hollister.

It sent Forsyth into Monday afternoon’s sectional round against Purdy, and kept the Lady Panthers’ hopes of a deep postseason run alive.

“We’ve been talking to the kids about ‘Burn Your Goals,’ it’s a book by Josh Medcalf,” Forsyth coach Collin Lyerla said. “To have a goal, then what happens when you get there, what happens when you don’t?

“What we’ve been talking about is being the best team you can be. What’s our mission? Our mission is to play the best game that we can, and I feel like we just did that. If we keep doing that, I think we keep winning.”

Forsyth improved to 22-3 with the victory, and the Lady Panthers are ranked second in the state in the one-class spring season. 

After Monday’s sectional round, the postseason continues with the state quarterfinals on Thursday, then the semifinals and championship round on May 17-18 at Killian Softball Complex in Springfield.

The celebration for Forsyth seemed a long way removed from the feelings of last year’s postseason, when the top-seeded Lady Panthers lost to Crane in the district finals.

“It seems like a long time ago, and it seems like three days ago, in a lot of ways,” Lyerla said. “Our seniors last year came into this game preparing the rest of the team for what it’s going to be like and what you don’t want to feel like after the game.”

“It’s been huge. Kyndra Drake and Hope Borkenhagen, as seniors, have led us every step of the way, and without their leadership, we don’t win that game.”

Big contributions also came from Essary, Forsyth’s pitcher and cleanup hitter, and Emily Shipman, the team’s catcher and third-place hitter in the order.

Essary allowed one run on seven hits, stranding four runners on base, and she put the exclamation point on the victory with her home run to lead off the sixth inning.

“Whenever I’m up to bat, I never really think about trying to hit a home run,” Essary said. “Sometimes it just happens. On that one, I just hit it square on and it just kept going.”

Essary added a first-inning single, following a Shipman single and leading to Forsyth’s first run. Shipman went to third base on Essary’s single to right field, then scored on a throwing error. Essary and Shipman combined to go 3-for-6 with two RBIs and two runs scored.

“The toughest three-four hitters in the state, they are really hard to get through,” Lyerla said. “Every single time, I expect them to get on base, and they almost always come through.”

Hollister tied the game at 1 in the top of the third inning, when Mady Pyatt singled and Reina Dodge followed with an RBI single.

Forsyth took the lead again in the home half of the third, when Drake singled and scored on a Shipman groundout.

The Lady Panthers put the game away in the sixth, starting with Essary’s home run as part of a four-run inning. Borkenhagen doubled home two runs and Drake added another hit to drive in the final run.

Hollister (12-7) hurt itself with some baserunning miscues. The Lady Tigers had a runner picked off by Shipman after straying too far off second base in the second inning, had a first-and-third, no-out rally extinguished in the fourth and had a runner cut down at the plate in the seventh.

“We stopped any kind of rally we had going today with our baserunning, and that’s normally not something that’s a weakness for us,” Hollister coach Willy Morgan said. “We just got caught between bags, making the wrong choice, and against a good team, you can’t do that. That stopped any kind of rally, it seemed like every time we got people on base.”

Still, the 12-victory season and appearance in the district finals is a sign of growth for the Hollister program.

“We’ve come a long ways as a team,” Morgan said. “It’s the group of kids that I have – they buy in and they work hard and there’s kind of a culture starting now. 

“We’ve been here and now we have those expectations. I really thank my seniors for helping to create that culture, a lot of it is on them.”

Forsyth advanced to the finals with a 15-0, four-inning victory over Blue Eye in Thursday’s semifinals.

Shipman paced the Lady Panthers with a 3-for-4, four-RBI, two-runs-scored outing that included a pair of doubles. Essary added two hits and drove in two runs, Kyleigh Kincaid had a double and two hits total, and Oletha Rich had two hits and scored three runs.

Hollister followed with a 14-3 victory over Spokane in a five-inning semifinal game. 

Hollister starter Bug Bailey scattered six hits and had three hits, scored three runs and drove in four for the Lady Tigers. Ella Hymes had a double and triple and drove in four runs, and Beca Clarida added two hits.

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