MISSOULA — ZooTown’s Khasidy Hodge approached manager Dennis Staves and gave him a hug, starting a flood of goodbyes from the rest of the players on Tuesday at the Dale Clawson Complex.
Kendra Jacobs then made her way to Staves, as did Charlee Hoover and Delaney Laird following ZooTown’s loss in the semifinals of the Senior League Softball West Regional.
“Thank you,” Hoover said. “I can’t wait. I’ll be back next year.”
“I believe you will. I’ll drag you in here from wherever you’re at,” Staves joked, drawing a smile from Hoover.
ZooTown had been eliminated from the 16-and-under tournament about 10 minutes earlier with an 11-1, six-inning loss to Hawaii in a rematch of last year's title game. It marked the first time in at least seven years ZooTown failed to make the title game, according to Staves and coach Tim Gray.
The two longtime Missoula-area coaches returned to lead ZooTown this summer after retiring at the end the 2017 tournament, when they guided the team to its fourth consecutive regional championship. Even though ZooTown came up short in its title quest, Staves and Gray enjoyed the ride.
“That’s the reason we do this,” Staves said as the goodbyes wound down. “They’re fine young ladies.”
“This is what it’s all about,” Gray added. “It’s the relationships you make with the kids. We get emotional.”
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ZooTown finished with a 4-4 record and bookended its tournament with losses to Hawaii. Unlike the 3-1 defeat to open pool play Friday, ZooTown couldn’t keep Hawaii’s offense in check Tuesday, going down 3-1 after two innings and 7-1 after a four-run third inning.
ZooTown’s trio of pitchers — Jacobs, Jadyn Gagner and Olivia Campbell — gave up 11 runs on 10 hits. The defense committed five errors, including four in the fifth inning that led to three unearned runs and a 10-1 deficit.
“I think one of the things was they’re young,” Staves said. “The further down we got, you could tell they were dropping off. It’s a big game. If you’re not in a lot of big games, sometimes it’s hard to play well and perform when you have to.”
Offensively, ZooTown left 10 runners on base, including nine in scoring position. It was the same issue as the team’s first loss to Hawaii, when it stranded five runners in scoring position.
ZooTown managed just six hits in six innings against starting pitcher Tehani Epenesa and failed to take advantage of Hawaii’s seven errors. Grace Hood drove in ZooTown’s lone run, doubling home Gagner in the first inning to tie the game, 1-1.
“I don’t know if it was nerves or what,” Staves said. “Their pitcher was a good pitcher, but she wasn’t overpowering us or anything. We had a couple shots and they made some good catches.”
ZooTown’s youth this year will breed experience in the future. Fourteen of the 15 players will be eligible to return next season; Makennah Hewitt is the lone player who will age out.
Five of the players will be freshmen who get to experience a high school season for the first time this coming spring as they develop even more. Two others, Hood and Laird, will only be eighth graders and appear to have bright futures with ZooTown after contributing in this year’s starting lineup for a team that outscored its opponents 85-44 in eight games.
“What I’m going to remember is that they’re a great team,” Staves said. “They’re all very personable young ladies. They’re all very good athletes. We’ve had a lot of fun with them.”