Florence's Cassie Phillips knew her time would come. And she wanted to be ready when it did.

"I worked hard," Phillips said. "Me and my catcher worked hard all winter long. In the fall, we'd go outside on the field. In the winter when it was snowing, we'd work hard in the gym."

Phillips, a junior right-hander, pitched spectacular ball last weekend in Frenchtown to lead the Falcons to their second consecutive Class B-C softball title.

A year ago, Phillips sat on the bench as all-state pitcher Tawnya Vernon guided Florence to its first state championship. Phillips went 0-1 last season, but decided to focus her attention on softball. Vernon graduated, leaving a spot in the Florence rotation.

"We had a pitcher that quit two other sports to be a pitcher," said Florence coach Mike Thill. "Last year when we'd come home after a road trip, (Cassie) would call me on Sunday and asked me if she could come down and work out.

"Once the season ended, she worked out probably five days a week. I probably haven't had a pitcher that worked that hard. Everyone kept saying she didn't throw that hard and she couldn't do this and she couldn't do that."

Phillips proved her critics wrong last week. She opened the tournament by throwing a two-hitter in a 5-0 victory over Shepherd.

She followed that with a one-hitter in a 1-0 win over rival Frenchtown in a Friday semifinal.

In the Saturday morning undefeated game, Phillips fired a five-hit shutout against Cut Bank.

Later in the day, Phillips allowed five hits and struck out seven in the Falcons' 11-3 win over Cut Bank in the state title game.

Just a week earlier, Cut Bank had roughed up Phillips to the tune of seven runs. She got pulled in a game the Falcons eventually lost 8-7 in extra innings.

"For her to come back and throw that kind of tournament, it's just hard to believe a pitcher can elevate herself in the state tournament and carry us," Thill said. "She just did an excellent job. It's a credit not to me, but to her hard work and wanting to work when there wasn't a chance to pitch at all last year."

Phillips pitched 27 innings in the tournament. She allowed just three runs, 13 hits and struck out 25 batters.

While not overpowering, Phillips hit her locations and kept teams off balance with some nasty off-speed pitches. She also had a solid defense behind her. The Falcons committed just seven errors in the tournament.

"I'm really proud of her," said catcher Rachel Sullivan. "We worked all winter pitching and catching together. She's come a long ways since last year. She's just done an awesome job. I'm extremely proud of her."

Phillips finished the season 18-6. Vernon was 14-7 as a senior, although she pitched much of the season with a nagging blister on her throwing hand.

Phillips showed immediately this season that she could be counted on when she beat Libby 1-0 on opening day.

"She exceeded all expectations I had for her to start the year," Thill said. "I thought we would have to outhit teams and win 8-6 and 8-7. When we struggled early with our hitting, she carried us. That kind of said she was capable."

Pencil in Florence as the early favorite to capture a third straight Class B-C title next year in Conrad. The Falcons lose just two seniors - shortstop Michelle Block and first baseman Holly Richards - from their state championship team.

Phillips, Sullivan, outfielders Lisa Hayes, Haley Bradley and Jessica DuBois, second baseman Candace Craun and third baseman Angela Vandeburg are all expected to return to the starting lineup. Vandeburg showed great offensive potential as a freshman, batting well over .500.

The road to a three-peat won't be easy. Frenchtown, which failed to make the title game for the first time in the six-year history of the tournament, will be hungry to get back on the mountaintop.

Coach Mark McMurray's squad finished 18-8 in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. The Broncs lose second pitcher Amanda Babon and outfielder Erin O'Loughlin.

All-state outfielder Anna Henderson, all-state shortstop Dulcie Gillette and freshman pitcher Eileen Babon are among those slated to return. Babon finished 10-3 this season. The Broncs' sophomore class also was strong with Aimee Sherry, Paige Lebsock, Traci Gibbs, Jerrylin Savik and Tessa Looker gaining valuable experience.

Loyola, which played third, also will be strong. The Breakers lose catcher Jos Weber and third baseman Chelsea Gilfillan. Ace Lynsey Evans is one of seven starters slated to return, along with promising freshmen Denise Hainline, Kim Hayes and A.J. Smith. Rachel Gilfillan, Arielle Ulmer, Megan Price, Jenna Bond and Kailey Cooley also have eligibility remaining.

"We've got a real good nucleus coming back," said Loyola coach Dan Weber. "They are good softball players and are enthusiastic and fun to be with. I'm looking forward to it."

Shepherd, one of the most consistent programs in the state, had a down year, but the Fillies lose just one player - pitcher Sarah Barnes.

Upstart teams such as Noxon and Huntley Project also could figure into the mix.

Noxon finished with a winning record in its first season of softball. Most first-year programs struggle to gain a single victory. The Red Devils lost by three runs to Conrad in the tournament opener, beat Poplar, and lost a close game to St. Ignatius.

Many of the Noxon players competed together on an ASA team during the last couple of years. Coach Chad Stocking loses just two seniors from a squad that was built around sophomores and freshmen.

Missoula Sentinel said goodbye to senior Maren Buck last weekend at the state Class AA softball tournament in Great Falls. Buck turned in a great effort, despite a case of patella tendinitis that kept her hobbling the last month of the season.

Buck batted 8-for-14 (.571) to help the two-time Western AA champs place fifth. Three of her hits were doubles, and Sentinel coach Brian Bessette said two of those doubles would have been triples if Buck had been healthy.

The injury won't heal until she rests the knee. Buck, however, wasn't about to sit out the final month of her final high school softball campaign.

"The decision was completely up to her," Bessette said. "She said she couldn't sit out and she had to go for it. She's a huge inspiration to the team, as well as a leader by example."

Buck gained all-state honors as an infielder last year and should be an all-state selection again. Buck entered the state tournament 9-3 on the mound with an 0.44 earned run average. She pitched 79 innings during the regular season, striking out 67. Opponents batted .147 against her.

She ended the season with .413 batting average. The leadoff hitter led Spartans in every offensive category except RBIs. She scored 19 runs, pounded 33 hits with five doubles, and had 11 stolen bases. She didn't strike out all season.

Buck pitched most of the innings at state for the Spartans, who lost in the second round to Butte, then beat Missoula Big Sky and Helena Capital before being eliminated by Kalispell.

The fact that Buck pitched helped her own cause. Courtesy runners were allowed for catchers and pitchers at all of the state softball tournaments this year.

Buck, a skilled pianist, will attend the University of Puget Sound on an academic and music scholarship. She also plans to continue her softball career at the Tacoma, Wash., school.

Buck will play for the Missoula Lady Mavs ASA team this summer, but will have to take off a few weeks to recover from the knee injury.

Reporter John Kasper can be reached at 523-5247 or by e-mail at jkasper@missoulian.com.

Athletes of the week

Alicia Torrey, Florence

The senior won five individual gold medals in leading the Florence girls to their first state Class B track and field championship. Torrey won both hurdles races, along with the high jump, long jump and triple jump.

Other notables

Lena Dailey, Polson: The junior catcher batted .370 in nine games and had some key RBIs, helping the Pirates claim the state Class A softball title.

Cassie Phillips, Florence: The junior pitcher hurled four victories, including three shutouts, to lift Florence to its second straight state Class B-C softball title.

Jeremey Thomas, Thompson Falls: The senior swept the boys' 100 and 200 dashes at the state Class B track meet for the second straight year.

David Vidal, Kalispell: The senior won the state Class AA boys' 1,600 for the third straight year, breaking the all-class record that had stood for 15 years.

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