Plano East head softball coach Cindy Mosteller is as tenured as any coach in the Metroplex, and even she is taken aback by what her Lady Panthers have endured during this season’s district schedule.
Tuesday’s 4-2 victory over Plano Senior marked the fourth time in 10 District 9-6A ballgames East has played into extra innings. The Lady Wildcats, meanwhile, were waging their seventh district game decided by two runs or less. As nerve-wracking as so many close-quarter contests might sound, it’s just been part and parcel for one of the area’s most competitive softball districts.
“It’s brutal. This is the toughest district, other than a couple of those Houston districts, and you need to be ready for a playoff game every night,” Mosteller said. “We just play it one game at a time and tell them not to worry and move onto the next one. You just have to refocus every game.”
The quality of 9-6A softball is well documented – six of the district’s seven teams have cracked DFWFastPitch’s area-wide top 10 poll this year – but even by its lofty standards, the 2019 season has been an outlier.
With 33 district ballgames in the books entering Friday, close games have become the norm. Over that stretch, 18 games (54.5 percent) have been decided by three runs or less, 10 by two runs or less (30.3 percent) and seven by one run (21.2 percent). In fact, 13 times has a game been either tied or separated by two runs entering the seventh inning.
For comparison’s sake, last year’s 56-game 6-6A schedule – which included Plano ISD, McKinney ISD, Allen, Denton Guyer and Wylie – totaled only 19 ballgames decided by three runs or less (33.9 percent) and only six by one run (10.7 percent).
That district schedule featured 13 outcomes decided via run-rule – a game called before its completion if a team is leading by at least 10 runs after five innings – where 9-6A has totaled only three. Blowouts simply don’t happen in this district.
Overall, the district’s first 33 games have produced an average margin of victory of just 4.2 runs versus 6-6A’s 6.0-run margin in 2018.
However, this season’s figure is partly inflated by last-place McKinney’s minus-75 run differential – including those three aforementioned run-rule decisions. Subtract the 0-10 Lionettes from the equation, and the average margin of victory in games played between the district’s other six teams is just 2.7 runs.
Perhaps the squad most affected by the district’s night-to-night tightrope walk has been Plano, which entered Friday at 5-5 and winners of just two of its past six games. During that stretch, the Lady Wildcats played four consecutive games decided by one run – going 1-3 and contributing to five district losses by a combined eight runs.
“It’s been really tough. Five losses by eight runs, and we’ve had opportunities. In every game that we’ve lost, there have been opportunities,” said Justin Pipak, Plano head coach. “… It’s been tough, the girls keep grinding and going at it, but it’d be nice if things fell the other way at some point.”
A team like Plano West, meanwhile, has thrived in close quarters with a perfect 3-0 mark in games decided by two runs or less – the only squad in the district with a record of greater than .500 in such situations. The Lady Wolves entered Friday unbeaten in 9-6A at 9-0, while Plano – just 2-5 in games decided by two runs or less – sat just a half-game up on fifth-place McKinney Boyd.
The district’s homestretch promises to be rife with tension, with playoff dreams still a reality for 9-6A’s top six teams. But as the first month-plus of the schedule has proven, late-game execution carries greater weight than ever in this district.
*As the regular season winds down, all-district awards aren’t far away from being voted. Through nine rounds of district play, Plano West senior Tatum Boyd and McKinney Boyd sophomore Kinsey Kackley have separated from the pack with two singular years for their respective ball clubs.
Kackley’s pitching numbers are nothing short of jaw-dropping, having authored a sophomore campaign that includes a 0.59 ERA in and double-digit strikeouts in all but one 9-6A outing. For the year, Kackley has fanned 395 batters and produced at the plate as well with a .344 batting average in district play.
The Lady Wolves’ star has been stellar in her own right, sporting a 0.99 ERA and 194 strikeouts while batting .452 in district and logging five extra-base hits, including a go-ahead homer in extra innings versus Kackley’s Lady Broncos.
Both have emphatic claims to district MVP honors, from Kackley’s game-changing pitching repertoire to Boyd’s well-rounded impact.
*The 9-6A playoff picture has received a shot in the arm in recent weeks due to a late-season surge by Plano East. The Lady Panthers entered Friday’s contest against last-place McKinney winners of three of their past four, avenging prior losses to Boyd, Allen and Plano, to climb into a tie with the Lady Wildcats for third place at 5-5.
The Lady Panthers have fared well in close games during the second half of district, winning three games by a total of five runs with two coming in extra innings. Of note, junior Carson Armijo’s bat has been hot, with the UCLA commit logging three straight games of at least two hits.
Although Tuesday’s finale pits East against first-place West, the Lady Panthers can take solace in having only lost 3-2 in their first meeting on March 22 and have only built momentum since.
*Tuesday’s East-West battle highlights one of several pivotal matchups on the docket for the final week of the 9-6A schedule. Tuesday’s bout between Plano and Boyd, separated by a half-game entering Friday, could very well determine a playoff berth, while Prosper can likely both lock up the No. 2 and derail Allen’s postseason hopes in their Tuesday showdown.
On Thursday, Plano and Prosper collide in a matchup that could have significant postseason ramifications, West could very well be eying district perfection against Allen, while last-place McKinney looks to avoid the opposite fate against rival Boyd.