CANTON, Mo. -- The Canton softball team has a special opportunity in front of it.
Last season, the Tigers were defending a Class 1 state title but failed to make it out of their district bracket. Now they are back into the final four with their eyes on a second title in three years.
"It fueled us a little bit knowing that we lost last year and that we had an opportunity," Canton senior catcher Hunter Collins said. "If we worked hard and trusted (coach Jonathan Bastian) we can be where we need to be."
Collins is a part of a big group of Tigers who know what its like to compete on the state stage. The other two seniors on the squad -- Abbey Hultz and Brilyn Pearl -- as well as the four juniors -- Tegan Burbridge, Hanna Rieffer, Abby Jarvis and Christina Cochran -- were a part of the 2017 championship team, and that knowledge will help when the girls face off with Stoutland at 11 a.m. on Friday at the Killian Softball Complex in Springfield, Mo.
"We know the experience there so we will have to take the underclassmen that haven't been to state yet under our wings and teach them to be calm and not get all worked up or nervous," Hultz said. "These are pretty big games."
Big games are meant for big players, and there aren't many bigger players in the state than Hultz right now. Hultz leads the Tigers (22-1) in almost every statistical category.
She is 18-1 in the circle with a 0.43 earned run average and 201 strikeouts, and during the current postseason run she has surrendered just five total runs in four games. Her contributions extend well beyond the circle, however.
Hultz also leads the team with a .549 batting average, six home runs and three doubles in the lead-off spot.
"I know it's Class 1 softball, but simply put Abbey Hultz is one of the best athletes in the state," Bastian said. "I've coached at college levels, boys and girls, and there are a lot of good athletes out there but to take her athletic ability and put her competitiveness on top of that and her work ethic, and then her attitude overall of being a great teammate. To have that all together, that's just a rare combination. As a coach, what more do I need to do?"
Her numbers are even a surprise to herself.
"I know that I worked a lot harder this summer than I had the past summer, but I didn't know that it would help me that much," Hultz said.
Collins has been right there working alongside Hultz during the offseason, and the duo have played together since they were just 8-years old.
"Watching her do all of the amazing things she's done this season is just super exciting and it makes me super proud of her," Collins said.
The success this season doesn't just come from its best player. Collins has also developed into a big bat, currently sitting with a .465 batting average and a team-high 41 RBIs.
"She is one of the most dangerous bats in any lineup," Bastian said of Collins. "And then catching, to have that combination that she can call a game, she knows how to get hitters out, she works really well with Abbey and our pitchers, and she's got a strong arm. The things she prevents by simply being back there, I just can't speak more to."
Jarvis also clocks in with a .443 average and Burbridge owns a .412, a big reason the Tigers have a .374 team batting average.
"Abbey Hultz and Abby Jarvis and Tegan Burbridge, they are strong every single day, they come out and are consistent," Collins said.
Having that kind of an offense behind her lets Hultz be confident when throwing.
"The way we hit and we score runs, it takes a lot of pressure off of me because I know we have at least a little bit of wiggle room," she said. "I still have to have the mentality to win."
Canton will have to use everything in its arsenal to defeat Stoutland (18-3-1) and advance to the Class 1 title game. Stoutland has only given up more than one run four times this season, and they have 11 strikeouts as a team.
"I just assume for the rest of the year that we are going to face a good team, so if we don't show up they are going to get us," Bastian said. "We need to make sure we take care of our own business. As long as we go out and play the game we know how to play we are going to feel pretty good with where we will be at and we can adjust as the game goes on."
No matter what the circumstance, win or lose on Friday, Canton is guaranteed two more games in this season and it wants to make the most of it.
"It's super bittersweet knowing that I only have two games left, but at the end of those two games I could be a state champion again," Collins said. "It's super exciting but also very sad that my career in high school is almost over."