AUSTIN — Heading into last weekend’s Class 6A state softball tournament, Katy coach Kalum Haack had words to heed for his power-slugging Tigers.
Gone were the games they could rely on the home run, Haack said. The Tigers had slammed 50 homers in 37 games up until that point, including 17 in the playoffs. Execution, baserunning, bunting, squeezing, sacrificing. Manufacture runs. Small ball. Those would be the words to live by in Austin, Haack pled.
Then, the Tigers went out and made Haack proud.
After a double steal, highlighted by a theft of home plate by senior Cait Calland, won the state semifinal against Keller 1-0 on May 31, Katy had seven sacrifice hits, five stolen bases and a plethora of timely hitting and smart baserunning to earn an 8-2 win over Klein Collins on June 1 at University of Texas’ McCombs Field in the state championship final.
It was Katy’s second state softball title in five years. The Tigers, who finished the season 37-2, won it all in 2015, too.
“I’m extremely happy,” said Haack, who wrapped up a third state tournament appearance in 23 years at the helm of Katy. “Our ’15 championship, we scored six runs in two games, and four were off squeezes (a sacrifice bunt with a runner on third base). We told our girls that when we got to state, we were going to see pitching that’s better than what we’ve seen most of the year. For us to play long ball like we normally do was going to be really difficult.
“We worked really, really hard on it, and it worked perfectly for us. It put momentum on our side. I’m so proud for them taking that upon themselves to do.”
Katy defeated the state’s No. 1 Class 6A team via small-ball in the state semifinal, escaping a storied Keller program that was making its ninth state appearance in 24 years. The Tigers repeated the effort, in more drastic fashion, against No. 2 Klein Collins in the state championship game.
Four of Katy’s eight runs were courtesy of sacrifice hits. Calland got things started with a sacrifice RBI bunt in the bottom of the first inning.
The next inning, Chloe Woodward reached on a fielder’s choice sacrifice bunt that scored pinch runner Jacquie Kissamis.
In the third inning, Calland struck again, contributing another fielder’s choice RBI sacrifice bunt, and she was brought home by Alyssa LeBlanc’s RBI single. It was 4-0 Katy at that point, and Klein Collins never recovered.
“It was grit,” said Calland, who had two RBIs in the state final. “Getting in the (batter’s) box and knowing you were going to get on base or score a teammate or move a runner … I think we had four squeezes in that game. To have that in your belt is just an awesome feeling.”
Katy’s fourth inning was also telling. Sydney Blakeman scored on a double steal, similar to the same play Calland won the state semifinal on with runners simultaneously stealing second base and home. Tori Whillock scored on a wild pitch and Chloe Cobb added an RBI single.
Top 5th: @Katysoftball1 7, Klein Collins 0. Sydney Blakeman scores on a double steal, Tori Whillock scores on a wild pitch and @chloecobb17 hits a RBI 1B. Dominant softball being played by Katy. #UILState pic.twitter.com/UMj9w9wIjr— Dennis Silva II (@densilva2) June 2, 2019
When Whillock scored on a throwing error in the bottom of the sixth, Katy’s work was finished.
“Coach really talked to us how important small ball would be,” Whillock said. “He was adamant it would come in use to get the job done. Every single person who was told to bunt or squeeze, they got the job done, and that was such a big difference in this game.”
In all, Katy totaled nine runs on 10 hits during the state tournament. Five of those runs were scored off the squeeze.
The Tigers, in a rare occurrence, did not hit a home run in either of the two games.
Katy had not been foreign to small ball by any means this season. Coming into the state tournament, the Tigers had 34 sacrifice hits, 18 sacrifice bunts and 16 sacrifice fly balls to accompany 89 stolen bases in 37 games.
It was a perfect complement to their homer-happy prowess.
“You have to be unselfish,” Haack said. “You have to put what you want behind what the team needs. Of course they want to swing the bat and try and hit a home run and drive somebody in. But if I need a girl to bunt or squeeze, that’s what they needed to do. That’s how this team is. They accept the challenge and it pays off.”
That aggressive and smart offense was all senior ace LeBlanc needed. In finishing her senior campaign 24-1, LeBlanc threw a complete-game shutout against Keller and followed that with another complete-game gem against Klein Collins, allowing two runs on six hits while striking out seven and walking three.
LeBlanc only encountered significant disaster when Klein Collins scored both of its runs in the fifth inning. But she rebounded with a dominant sixth to re-establish Katy’s footing.
LeBlanc was named the championship game’s Most Valuable Player. She also went 2-for-3 at the plate with an RBI.
“I just wanted to stay focused,” LeBlanc said. “I did what I normally do. We had some runs on the board early that helped me to relax. It comes down to all of our hard work and our drive to not push. We know what we’re capable of. That’s what we showed.”
It did. On the biggest stage of the season, Katy proved demonstratively it can beat anyone in any way.
“Coming into state, we knew we’d have to rely on small ball,” Cobb said. “We’re facing some of the best teams in the state and the country. We knew we wouldn’t be able to rely on the home run, and the small game was a huge part of this game.”