RIVERSIDE, Mo. — Gracie Dieleman knows she can’t be Olivia Kinsey.
Bubbly and perfectly matched in personality, the Park Hill South pair — Dieleman a sophomore and Kinsey a senior — call themselves best friends in addition to teammates. The relationship might have become even stronger when an arm injury put Kinsey’s final season in question and pushed Dieleman into the pitching circle more often than anyone planned.
“I can’t try to be Olivia,” Dieleman said. “I just try to do the best I can, get ground balls and try to pitch so we can get easy quick outs.”
Park Hill South’s season changed when Kinsey, a returning Missouri High School Fastpitch Coaches Association all-state pick, couldn’t ignore tightness in her right bicep any longer after the Joplin Tournament in late August.
The hard-throwing right-hander pitched one more game against St. Joseph Central — a two-hit, 10-strikeout shutout — before going on “the disabled list.” She struggled with control early in the season, especially in a season-opening loss to defending Class 4 state champion Staley, but couldn’t pinpoint whether the strained muscle contributed to the issues.
Kinsey said the tightness led her upper arm to be swollen and “rock hard,” and after enduring a hip flexor injury on her left side in the season, she opted to think about her future beyond Park Hill South.
“Resting is the best thing I can do,” said Kinsey, committed to the University of Oregon. “It’s a bummer, but I know softball is not over.”
With Kinsey unavailable, Dieleman — an unproven sophomore right-hander — became the top option. Jessie Hagen, a freshman, also split time early, and junior Taylor Johnson now potentially factors into the plans in the circle, as well for coach Josh Walker.
Johnson previously pitched junior varsity as a freshman but saw her first action on varsity in the Blue Springs Tournament, earning a win with 6 2/3 solid innings vs. Bixby (Okla.).
Dieleman expected to pitch in relief of Kinsey some this season, a potential change of pace in the late innings to Kinsey’s overpowering, strikeout stuff. Carolyn Stock — one of just four seniors on the varsity roster — also hasn’t pitched this season after being the No. 2 option last year, instead focusing on her first base duties ahead of a commitment to Missouri State.
In her first start after Kinsey was shut down, Dieleman shut out Truman with five strikeouts, and she continues to use her best friend as a resource during the struggles.
“Liv, she’s like my big sister, and she was my pitching coach for a while before I was in high school,” she said. “I just try to go to her when there’s something I can work on or that I need help with.”
Kinsey’s decision means she can’t go after all-state honors again, and she likely won’t have a chance to help lead Park Hill South back to the postseason. The Panthers made the sectional round in 2014 during her standout sophomore season — the only playoff game in program history.
Walker retooled his lineup behind a talented group of sophomores and freshmen.
The downside of a different style of pitching involves putting more pressure to field balls on play on a youthful defense. However, the offensive talent creates the ability to compete in most games.
Park Hill South has scored nine or more runs eight times this season, while allowing double-digits in five.
“We’re really young, and I was wanting to help lead the team,” Kinsey said. “As young as we are, we have really great players, and I was really excited for this year.”
The biggest offensive performance for Park Hill South came Thursday, Sept. 22 in a shutout of Truman in Riverside, Mo.
The Panthers pounded out 14 hits and ended up with a walkoff 15-0 win in just four innings. They plated three unearned in the first inning after Ahrendt reached first base on a dropped third strike. Hagen followed with an RBI double to right-center field before Meggen Keller, a freshman catcher, came through with a two-out, two-run triple.
Park Hill South scored in three of four innings, at least three in each of the run-scoring frames.
In the third, Hagen scored Ahrendt again with another double followed by sophomore third baseman Georgia Clark’s RBI double, Keller’s RBI single and sophomore second baseman Emma Beuerlein’s RBI double, forcing the Patriots to use three pitchers.
Up 9-0, Park Hill South scored six in the fourth to close out the win. Hagen led off with a walk, and after Clark’s groundout, seven straight players reached with Alex Wilhite hitting a two-run single, and Ahrendt ending the game with a two-run single, improving the Panthers to 4-4 in Suburban Conference Red Division play.
“We started off hitting really great, and then we didn’t hit for a few games,” Dieleman said. “But I think we’re back now, and I think we’ll keep hitting.”
Dieleman started and earned the win, a result that looked as good on paper as many of Kinsey’s during the previous three seasons. Dieleman didn’t strike out any but wound up with a shutout, giving up three hits and one walk in four innings.
The lack of strikeouts made the performance different, but that’s OK because Dieleman doesn’t want to be her best friend. She just wants to enjoy their final season together.
“We were excited to see what Olivia was going to do leading them, and of course, that didn’t work out as much as we wanted to,” Walker said. “Hopefully, we can see these kids blossom into what we think will be a really talented team. We just need to sure it up in the circle, get that taken care of.”
Grain Valley 3, Park Hill South 2
The Panthers’ comeback bid came up just short Monday, Sept. 26 at Park Hill South High School in Riverside, Mo.
Down 3-0 entering the bottom of the seventh, Ahrendt led off with a single, and Clark (single) and Stock (walk) reached with one out. Keller scored one with a single, and Wilhite hit a two-out single to close the gap to one run and load the bases.
Beuerlein grounded out to end the game.
Park Hill South finished with nine hits, while Hagen started and allowed 13 hits but still limiting Grain Valley to two runs in the third and one in the fourth. The Panthers dropped to 11-12 overall.
Kearney 9, Park Hill South 4
Hagen allowed five runs in the bottom of the first inning, negating a strong start for the Panthers in a loss Wednesday, Sept. 21 in Kearney, Mo.
Park Hill South struck for two runs in the first inning on Clark’s two-run, two-out double to center with the bases loaded, but the Panthers stranded two. Down 7-2 after three innings, Park Hill South next scored when Dieleman walked, and Kate Kobayashi followed with a two-run home run to left field.
Kobayashi went 2-for-4 from the leadoff spot and scored twice, while Ahrendt reached three times in the No. 2 spot.