AURORA -- Thursday night's semifinal games in the Class 3, District 11 could be characterized by the nickname of the team that smashed the bracket.
The Liberators of Bolivar, the fourth-seed, stunned the top-seeded Cassville Wildcats, 5-4, to advance to the finals Friday night against the Monett Cubs, who defeated sixth-seed Forsyth, 7-5.
Rated eighth in state at 16-3 and coming off another Travis Northern no-hitter against Hollister in the opening round, Cassville got overrun late by Bolivar and suddenly found itself in the unimaginable position of elimination.
In the night's other semifinal game, the Cubs had the Forsyth Panthers on a short leash all game long, behind the workhouse effort of lefty hurler Jesse Bremer and the bats of Marcus Enloe and Doug Aldridge.
Fiery third-baseman Enloe issued his calling card early to Forsyth by blasting his fourth home run of the year in the first inning.
When Forsyth pulled even in the third at 1-1, Monett went to work in the bottom of the inning.
The protégé, Sparky Roberts, walked. The mentor, Spenser Witt, advanced them both with a bunt. Doug Aldridge punched their ticket home with a line drive smash. Stalwart Jake Smith had his usual impact, replicating Aldridge with a key hit of his own for a pair more. The score stood 5-1, and the Cubs never looked back.
Panther pitchers Troy Darting and Larry Skeen couldn't quiet the bats.
The statistics suggest a game closer than it was. Forsyth's nine hits matched Monett's production, but the Cubs - absent a pitching ace since the graduation of Kyle Coatney - almost seem to relish the drama of dealing with base runners. Spice it up with a few fielding follies - and it's a carnivore pawing at wounded prey, trying to provoke a little more action.
When Monett Coach Michael Calhoun reacts to the dicey fielding moments with the vocal reinforcement, "You're okay. It's alright," the layers of belief in his kids to manage the tight situations is what distinguishes a good baseball team from one on a search for faith. A championship run isn't built on a sustained stampede. Success at the elite level is embracing the tension, not wishing it away.
As Monett's season continues to evolve, Calhoun's boys shy away from nothing and were likely shocked that the expected rematch with Cassville didn't materialize. The Cubs had chances in their regular season game down south, but Cassville took away a 5-4 win, setting the stage for a district showdown.
But a face-off game was not to be. Perhaps it was vaunted Cassville looking past Bolivar, eyeing Monett or the sectional glory beyond.
Bolivar had agenda too. Finding respect.
"I've said all year we've got a good team," said Liberator Coach Eric Briggs. "But we have to keep on proving it."
With a tenacious effort Thursday night, the district championship game is the opportunity Bolivar carved out for itself. The Liberators came to play but sputtered early by leaving runners on base against the Wildcats. Bolivar didn't let it come back to haunt them; it just took five innings to notch a run.
Suddenly, Cassville was fighting for survival, and a bright season was extinguished.
The next semifinal game of the night had a pair of teams sharing the same taste for playoff rematch, as Forsyth and Monett were both looking for Springfield Catholic. Last year, Forsyth's 21-1 season was clipped in the district semis by the Fighting Irish. Monett's shutout terror in that postseason met the same fate a game later, when Catholic sent the Cubs home in the district title game, 5-4.
But Forsyth got first crack at the boys in Celtic green and took advantage of their opening round opportunity by thumping Catholic, 15-6.
And when Monett's regional nemesis - Cassville - was sent packing by Bolivar, the test for the Cubs was proper focus against Forsyth.
"In the middle of this year, things started clicking," said Cubs Coach Calhoun. "If we're focused, we can do a lot of damage."
His team kept their eye on the ball and the game at hand with a solid win Thursday.
In a remodeling year for Forsyth, new coach Jim Julian can be proud of the Panthers' penetration at districts.
"Our kids battled," reflected Julian. "I knew it would be an uphill struggle. Monett makes you play defense. Little things hurt us, and in big games like this, it comes down to the fewest mistakes."
With the sectionals once again within reach, this year's edition of Cub baseball has the chance to push the program to new heights. 2007 was a single swing in sectionals. In 2009, the team got nicked in the district championship.
The march now offers a belief that Coach Calhoun knows is true. His team hasn't peaked yet.
The Monett Cubs, 15-6, continue to find lift and are now fully aloft in another competitive postseason.
"I'm still waiting for us to play our best game," he said after the semifinal victory.
Monett and Bolivar play for the district championship at Aurora on Friday at 6 p.m.