Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
When the Fatima baseball team won the Class 3 state championship last year, they did so by beating Springfield Catholic.
To return to the state championship game, the Comets will have to get past the Fightin’ Irish again, this time in the semifinals.
Been there, done that — right?
“Last year was last year, and this year is this year,” Fatima coach Scott Kilgore said. “We’re not trying to be overconfident by any means, because we know you can’t look past anybody.”
That said, Kilgore believes winning the state title last year is a plus for the Comets.
“You know what to expect,” he said. “You know what level of play that you’re going to have to play at in order to be successful. Three out of the four Class 3 teams are back this year, so we know exactly where we’re going to be.”
New Madrid County Central is the third Class 3 team returning to the Final Four.
Experience or not, a repeat won’t be a cakewalk for Fatima. Springfield Catholic (26-2) has topped the Missouri High School Baseball Coaches Association’s rankings since January. The Comets (21-9) haven’t received votes all season.
“I don’t look at rankings. I just don’t,” Kilgore said. “That’s not affecting us whatsoever.”
Fatima wasn’t even the top-ranked team in its district, as the Comets were seeded third in District 13. But, Kilgore said, that’s right where he likes his team to be.
“There’s a ton of pressure put on the kids with the one (seed), and with the two, there’s still a lot of expectations,” he said. “The three seed? You just get to go play baseball.”
Fatima did that, cruising by Eugene, Southern Boone and Blair Oaks to the district title.
The Comets started playing well at the right time.
“We’ve had our ups and downs throughout this season,” Kilgore said. “Right now, we’re playing pretty dang good baseball. We’re finding ways to win.”
Part of those downs were a result of the Comets graduating eight seniors — four of them starters — after last year’s championship.
“Any time you graduate that much, you kind of consider it as maybe a rebuilding year,” Kilgore said. “But for us, I think it’s been a little bit different.”
Kilgore’s approach to implementing young talent early has smoothed that transition. Sophomores make up a big part of the team, and the Comets even had a freshman starting every game last year.
“The younger you can get them in, I think, the better it is, especially for years to come,” Kilgore said. “The more experience they can gain early is only going to be a plus later on.”
He hopes teams might overestimate the impact losing eight seniors had on Fatima and expect the Comets to perform at a lower level.
“We lost a lot of hitters and we lost a lot of pitchers, but on the other hand, these kids that are filling the roles of those seniors last year have really stepped up and have really built some confidence,” he said. “We’re going to be ready.”
Kilgore, who has been with Fatima for 15 years, eight as head coach, has added to Fatima’s strong baseball tradition. The Comets had three Final Four teams in the ‘90s, including a state champion in 1992. He has enjoyed strengthening that legacy.
“The reputation has been good through the years with Fatima, and a lot of that is attributed to quality of kids that we’ve got and just how they play the game,” he said. “Those younger kids see that and they want to mimic that. And that’s how the tradition starts. That’s how the cycle continues.”
Fatima isn’t the only Osage County school to reach the Final Four in baseball this year, as Linn has done it for the second time in school history.
“That is very exciting, and I know our boys are really happy and really supporting them,” Kilgore said. “As far as I know, they’re doing the same.”
Kilgore hopes the support his team has received from the area can be reciprocated.
“I think it would mean a lot to the community to get back-to-back state championships,” he said. “It’d mean a lot to the team. It’d mean a lot to me, putting in the time — and my coaching staff, I’m speaking on their behalf as well. We’re going to go up and give it our best shot, and we’re gonna be ready and hope that we can be as successful as we have been up to this point.
“And a little bit of luck isn’t going to hurt anybody.”
Fatima and Springfield Catholic will meet at 4 p.m., with New Madrid County Central (14-12) playing O’Fallon Christian (17-10) at 6:30 p.m.
The semifinal winners will play at 1 p.m. Wednesday for the title, while the losers will meet at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday in the third-place game.