By CONOR NICHOLL
HAYS – Last season, Hoisington-Central Plains softball held off Beloit, 1-0, in a Class 3A regional semifinal contest. Hoisington ace Kassidy Nixon permitted just four baserunners and struck out 17 in a 10-inning game. The Cardinals struggled with Beloit standout pitcher Chloe Odle’s rise ball. Hoisington eventually finished with 20 wins and a state final four showing. All 2022, Hoisington had talked about laying off the rise ball.
A year later, the squads met Wednesday in a 3A regional championship game. Hoisington is paced by its senior quartet of Nixon, Gracie Aylward, Shaylah Kempke and Kadence Urban.
Their fathers, Kelly Nixon, Kelly Urban and Mike Aylward served as coaches for the girls starting at nine years old. Kempke moved to the area a few years later and quickly formed a tight bond. The seniors won multiple state championships in the younger ranks. This spring, Hoisington/Central Plains lost just one senior and entered with high expectations.
Beloit also graduated just one senior off its 17-win team last spring. Nixon again faced Odle, who had a 0.19 ERA earlier this month. Head coach Tim Boxberger estimated the Cardinals swung at fewer than five pitches outside of the zone Wednesday.
The seniors form the top-four hitters in the lineup: Aylward, Kempke, Urban, Nixon. They created the foundation for an 11-0 five-inning run rule victory at the Bickle-Schmidt Sports Complex. Nixon, who has been clocked at 63-64 miles per hour, struck out seven and permitted just one hit with her moving fastball, curveball and changeup. Hoisington tallied five runs in the third and took advantage of six Beloit errors.
“They have been my favorite group to play with,” Nixon said.
Afterward, Hoisington went through the customary celebratory photos, including team shots and seniors. The seniors gathered at home plate on the newly installed turf at Field 4. They took pictures as the four dads stood nearby. Then, the dads elected to jump in for a picture. Hoisington had never done that before in softball, though do take a daughter/dad photo in volleyball.
“We have a special kind of bond, us four seniors, and especially with the dad’s support in the stands, and everything, we just really connect with each other, and it really helps our team,” Urban said.
Kelly, Kelly, Mike and James Kempke stood behind their daughters. Afterward, each one embraced their child. Kelly Nixon told Kassidy, “Way to go kiddo, I am so proud of you.”
“They will do anything for those girls,” Boxberger said. “It’s great.”
“We thought it would be the best idea ever,” Nixon added.
While all four have earned college softball interest, none are planning to play softball in college. Nixon has won five state titles at Central Plains and is one of Kansas’ most well-known athletes as player of the year in volleyball and basketball. She is headed to Barton CC volleyball and has considered playing softball, too.
“It’s definitely been heart-breaking thinking about that,” Nixon said. “Next week is my last week of ever playing – or the thought that this week could have been my last week, but I am glad we get to go on another week. But there’s been some thoughts crossing my mind whether I’d wanted to walk-on at Barton to do another season. It’s just been hard to decide, because I have grown up playing with the same girls, and I am not sure if I would be ready to play with a different group of girls or not, so that’s definitely the deciding factor on that.”
Hoisington-Central Plains’ dominance highlighted a bevy of regional championships in baseball and softball across Kansas. Cheney and Silver Lake, which finished 1-2 in 3A last season, didn’t qualify for state. Haven, which took third and is a perennial power, also lost out at regionals. Hoisington is the lone top-four team back.
“It’s really, really nice,” Urban said. “We had a lot of pressure coming into this season, making it back to state with the fans and everything, but it feels really, really great to be back and go to state again.”
Many top qualifiers have a strong chance for the best season in school history. Frontenac (20-3) has two recent state titles and qualified in ’21. Heather Arnett is on the cusp of breaking single season and career state records for steals.
Scott City (20-1) is at state for the first time ever. Coach Erin Myers picked up career win No. 100 in a 4-0 regional championship victory against Holcomb. Council Grove (21-2) has never won a state game, per KSHSAA archives. In the regional final, CG defeated Halstead, 6-1. Halstead is the lone squad to defeat Hoisington.
Hoisington outscored its three regional opponents, 40-0, and improved to 22-1. Hoisington has not won an athletic state title in any sport since 3-2-1A girls’ tennis in 1999. Football, boys’ and girls’ wrestling have combined for multiple state runner-ups in the last 15 years.
“I do feel like we have a really good chance of winning state this year,” Boxberger said.
Prairie View is a returning state qualifier at 18-3. Like Hoisington, Kingman has a highly experienced and talented senior class and stands at 21-2, a school record for victories. Kingman beat Cheney in the regional final. Santa Fe Trail is 17-4, while the Rossville/Nemaha Central regional final was suspended because of weather. SFT was 12-10 last season and qualified for the first time since ’14.
“I think 3A is one of the best levels in softball,” Boxberger said. “I know it was last year. Yeah, it’s almost like a whole new group I think going this year to the state tournament. We used to play Kingman, and I know they are a good hitting team. They beat Cheney, so they must be pretty good.”
4A East had defending champion Wamego (21-1) and Eudora (20-2) each qualify. Wamego has its bevy of stars, paced by pitchers Peyton Hardenburger and Maya Gallagher. Eudora has star ace Kira Baker, who has the school’s all-time strikeout record.
Hardenburger continues to have a 0.00 ERA. Wamego beat Baldwin, 10-2, and defeated Iola, 3-0. She came in for the fifth inning against Baldwin, pitched three and struck out five. Against Iola, she delivered 19 strikeouts. The current state record is 0.06 set by Arkansas City’s Jacey Juden in 2007, per the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame. Juden is one of Kansas’ all-time greats, still holds four high school records, and is in the Cowley County CC Hall of Fame.
Class 5A softball had all the top seeds win, which should set up a highly intriguing state tournament. Bishop Carroll has the state’s longest winning streak at 45 games and is 22-0. Newton has enjoyed its massive turnaround and stands at 20-2, including a win against Valley Center. VC is also 20-2. Eisenhower, a final four squad in ’21, is 16-6.
Newton ace Tegan Livesay pitched her first no-hitter in the regional semifinals. Newton has more than wins total this year than ’17-21 combined.
On the East side, Basehor-Linwood is 22-0, Spring Hill 19-2, Blue Valley Southwest 19-3 and Topeka Seaman 17-5. B-L is the defending state runner-up, while Spring Hill is a returning state qualifier.
In 6A East, Gardner-Edgerton (17-3), Blue Valley (13-9) and Olathe North (18-4) have qualified. On the West, Washburn Rural (21-1), defending champion Topeka High (19-3) and Wichita Northwest (16-6) each qualified. WR swept Topeka High in its conference doubleheader.
On the baseball side, longtime power Pittsburg Colgan easily qualified for state again. The Panthers had a 6-11 record at the time of seeding, then went 3-0 in the Pittsburg regional with a combined score of 43-8.
Colony-Crest (21-0) is back to state and remains the only undefeated baseball team in Kansas. In what was a high-profile matchup, Elkhart defeated Bucklin, 5-2, in the regional championship game.
The 3A Russell regional featured several upsets and second-seeded Thomas More Prep-Marian/La Crosse bested No. 5 Larned, 11-3, in the regional title game. TMP has gone state quarterfinals in football, back-to-back final four in basketball and state in baseball for the first time ever. The Monarchs, led by Jace Wentling, has played 17 games in the last 29 days because of significant early season cancellations. TMP had just two contests as of April 19 – Larned had played nine.
Both Ottawa softball and baseball qualified with 4A upsets. Ottawa knocked off senior-laden Holton softball. Ottawa baseball defeated Topeka Hayden, 6-2, in the Wamego regional final. Hayden had bested host Wamego in the regional semifinal.
4A West baseball had four teams that had separated themselves during the season: Pratt, McPherson, defending runner-up Clay Center and Buhler. McPherson and Clay Center qualified. Pratt lost in the wild regional where Abilene came back to win in the bottom of the seventh after No. 16 seed Andale-Garden Plain upset the Greenbacks.
Then, El Dorado (10-12) qualified for state for the first time since 2000, confirmed by Charles Chaney of the Butler County Times-Gazette. El Dorado defeated 13-win Circle, 5-2. Then, eight-win Clearwater upset Buhler in extra innings. In the final, El Dorado won, 12-2.
Entering Wednesday, Urban paced Hoisington with a .607 average. Urban wore kinesio tape on her right shoulder because of a possible labrum/rotator cuff injury. Urban is in pain throwing.
“I am going to fight at state for it,” Urban said. “Hopefully it’s not anything major.”
Nixon was a little over .500. In the circle, Nixon is 13-0. She has an ERA around 1.50. Aylward starts at first and is left-handed. Kempke is in right, Urban center. Kempke has multiple visible tattoos, including words on her arm that read: “Strength is what we gain from the madness we survive.”
“No matter what you have been through, like you are always going to gain strength in some way from it,” she said. “You are going to learn from it no matter what it is.”
The Cardinals have consistently hit, outside of the 6-5 loss to Halstead on April 22.
“The Halstead loss might have been more good than anything,” Boxberger said. “I mean, I don’t like to lose, but I told them, their heads might have been getting a little too big, and we are a little too sure of ourselves. Ever since that loss, we have been locked in at practice and games and it was probably the best thing that’s happened. … I think it’s a blessing. I think we have been playing great ever since.”
Around that time, Hoisington put up posters of the four seniors on the dugout fence. Boxberger, who also coached the seniors for a couple of years very early in their careers, said Hoisington has customarily done the posters each spring. This year, the posters took a little while longer. Since then, the Cardinals are 11-0 and have outscored teams, 162-3, in that stretch.
“They are coming along with us to state,” a smiling Boxberger said of the posters. “Yeah, we try to honor our seniors all year.”
In addition to the seniors, Jordyn Boxberger is the shortstop and backup pitcher with a 9-1 record in the circle. Second baseman Mollie Steiner, third baseman Ava Henry, catcher Kashlin Beck, designated player Addy Ogle and outfielder Tricia Schremmer round the starters.
“I have found that it’s always very friendly,” Kempke said. “And no matter what people’s opinions are of you, they always make it feel like you are welcome, and they don’t really turn their back on you, even if you are not from here.”
Nixon has been highly instrumental in Claflin-Central Plains’ run of state titles in volleyball and basketball. Claflin and Hoisington are both in Barton County and have long co-oped in softball. Throughout the game, Nixon continually cheered on her teammates. She stood at the dugout entrance, generally holding a bat with two hands behind her neck.
“We have really strong goals this year, and really helpful also with basketball and volleyball being that senior and having to be really vocal with them has helped me,” Nixon said.
Hoisington led 2-0 entering the bottom of the third. In the top, Hoisington erred on a bunt. The Trojan tried to score, but Hoisington threw her out at the plate. In the third, Kempke hustled down the line on a ground ball and forced an error.
“I have always been fast,’ Kempke said. “I guess I would always beat the little boys on the playground, like running at recess. … Kelly Nixon actually helped me a lot learn how to channel that speed into explosiveness, not so long-distance.”
Then, Urban, who tripled to right field in her first at-bat off a changeup, blooped a double down the right field line.
“We work on that,” Boxberger said. “Everything outer half of the plate or changeup, try to stay back and take it the other way.”
“Confidence,” Urban added. “I had a lot of confidence going up to the plate and just believing in myself.”
Nixon, hitting fourth in the lineup, continually fouled off Odle’s pitches, fought back from two strikes, saw double-digit pitches and drew a walk to load the bases. Then, Boxberger followed with a chopper that went off the shortstop’s glove into the outfield.
“It was honestly terrifying,” Nixon said. “But I was like, ‘Hey, if I can just sit here and (hit) this many foul balls, I might as well win it.”
Steiner came back with a two-strike hole to hit a bouncer that Odle couldn’t handle and effectively opening the floodgates. In the fourth, Kempke delivered another chopper and hustled down the line, and Boxberger smoked a double into the left-center gap.
“We knew that if we saw (Beloit) at regionals it was going to be a tough game,” Nixon said. “And we didn’t want to do that 10-inning game again like it did last year, so we came in really focused on watching them, which we knew she was going to throw those first-pitch strikes, so we hop on it right away, try to get into her head as soon as possible.”