Following back-to-back state final four appearances, the Notre Dame softball team finds itself in the state playoffs again.
The situation is a near mirror-image of last year -- all the way down to identical 26-2 records.
Two major differences for the Bulldogs this time around are home-field advantage for the Class 3 sectional and the opponent, which delivers the matchup everyone expected to take place last year.
Notre Dame will host De Soto (26-2) at 5:30 p.m. today.
"I really feel the two of us are final four quality teams," Notre Dame coach Jeff Graviett said. "They were supposed to be the big game last year but they got upset."
De Soto comes in riding a 24-game winning streak that stretches back to the opening week of the season. The Dragons avenged last year's upset loss by beating Fredericktown 4-0 in the district championship game this season.
"We've thought about this game since last year," De Soto coach Dave Guemmer said. "It was a big disappointment last year, but Fredericktown wasn't that bad of a team."
While the Dragons fell to Fredericktown in the district tournament last year, Notre Dame nearly fell victim to the upset bug this season. The Bulldogs scored a run in the seventh to pull out a 2-1 semifinal win over Windsor, and trailed 1-0 in the bottom of the fourth before rallying for three runs and a 3-1 win in the championship game against Festus.
Returning all-state pitcher Beth Schnurbusch picked up the wins in both games, coming on in relief in the semifinal.
"I think it is definitely going to help us," Schnurbusch said of the district scares. "Although I didn't like it, it showed we have the drive to overcome something like that."
Notre Dame's potent offense -- the Bulldogs average 8.4 runs a game -- has managed just five runs those two contests. Against the Dragons, Notre Dame will face a pitcher who sports a 0.56 ERA.
During the district tournament, leadoff hitter Paris Burger had five of Notre Dame's 15 hits, and Kristain Burger added three hits.
"I look at it like the back of the order struggled last weekend and they're due," Graviett said. "I look at it like you can't hold these girls down for long."
De Soto starter Kaitlyn Hasty will be the one trying to hold Notre Dame's lineup down. Hasty has a 16-1 record with a 0.56 ERA in 113 innings. She has 154 strikeouts and just 15 walks.
Notre Dame's pitching has been stout as well. The Bulldogs sport a 0.70 ERA as a team, and Schnurbusch has a 14-0 record with a 0.83 ERA in 75 2/3 innings.
"We've talked and talked all year how the playoffs are almost equivalent to the big league playoffs; it's all about pitching and defense," Graviett said. "We've proved we can beat you 2-1 as well as 10-0."
The Bulldogs faced De Soto in the sectional round in 2004 and cruised to a 6-1 win at home. It could be a closer outcome this year, but with Notre Dame's offensive weapons it will be hard to hold the Bulldogs' offense down.
Senior first baseman Kristain Burger, a two-time all-state player, has added to her place in Notre Dame's record book. She has set the single-season record for home runs (8), RBIs (53), triples (4) and runs (39).
Paris Burger and Kristain Burger have both surpassed the previous record for hits in a season with 49 and 48, respectively. Paris Burger leads the team with a .544 average, and Kristain Burger is batting .539.
De Soto counters with Caroyln and Marilyn Oquendo, twin daughters of former St. Louis Cardinals infielder and current third-base coach Jose Oquendo.
Marilyn Oquendo leads the team with a .478 batting average, 36 runs scored and 36 RBIs. Carolyn Oquendo is hitting .461 with 25 runs scored and 32 RBIs.
"I think overall we're a better hitting team than Notre Dame is," Guemmer said. "But we don't have their speed. That's where they have an advantage on us."
Notre Dame has the playoff experience of two final four runs, but also has to deal with the pressure of expectations.
"It's been difficult," Schnurbusch said, "but we've been good at doing that. We all have high expectations four ourselves, but we definitely don't think we'll get through without a tough road."
Playing in front of the home crowd should give the Bulldogs some added comfort and another edge.
"We've lost one home game the last few years and we're fortunate to get a chance to play a home game in the playoffs," Graviett said. "So you look to make the most of that."
Kelly makes its fifth straight appearance in the sectional round with a 4 p.m. home game against Twin Rivers.
The Hawks dispatched Crystal City 6-1 to win the Class 2 District 2 title. Twin Rivers (8-5) got by Greenville in the District 1 finals.
Last year, the Hawks fell to Strafford in the sectional, a far cry from a state championship season in 2004. This season, the Hawks (23-6) have had four of their six losses come to Notre Dame, including one to the JV squad.
Londyn Backfish, Casey Kern and Kalie Hughes are hitting better than .400 for the Hawks. Kelly has five hitters with 20 or more RBIs.
Kayla Cunningham leads Twin Rivers with a .565 average, and starting pitcher Carlee Vancil has struck out 201 batters this season.
Delta will make the long trip across the state to face Miller at 5 p.m. today at Billings High School, which is located southwest of Springfield, Mo.
The Bobcats (12-7) advanced to the Class 1 sectional round with a 2-1 win against Naylor. Delta last made it to the sectional round in 2002.
Miller (18-6) has won three straight district titles, including back-to-back appearances in the state final four. Both times, Miller has fallen in the semifinals.
Delta made the final four in 2000, its only trip in three state playoff appearances.
Bobcats freshman Kendra Burnett has pitched in all 19 games for Delta. Burnett threw a two-hitter in Delta's district championship win. Kaci Menz added a home run for the game-winning run against Naylor.