The Thomas More Prep-Marian softball team wasn’t about to take anything for granted.

Sure, the Monarchs were the proverbial favorite to win the Class 3A regional title again. And facing a team that hadn’t won until the postseason in the title game would have been easy to overlook and make travel arrangements for next week’s state tourney in Manhattan well in advance.

But when Russell scored first and put the Monarchs in an early hole after the top of the first inning, TMP had the wake-up call it needed.

“Especially since Russell had come in here and surprised a lot of people,” said junior Bailey Lacy. “It was one of those things like, ‘Holy cow. We have to play. We just can’t walk our way through this.’ We had to come in and play hard.”

Senior Alison Helget provided the spark in the Monarchs’ first at-bat, and the Monarchs never looked back en route to an 11-1 win over the Broncos in only five innings. The victory gave the Monarchs back-to-back trips to the 3A finale in Manhattan.

“Knowing Russell was 0-18 coming into this, but then they changed it to 2-18 — anything can happen in the game of softball,” Helget said. “We were just really trying to focus in and work on our skills and making sure we were playing up to our abilities and not playing down.”

Helget, the Monarchs’ leadoff batter, drove the first pitch she saw well into the outfield, ending up at third with a triple.

“It was really important for us to make a statement in our first at-bat, and I think I made that,” Helget said. “It’s really hard, especially when we come back from 1-0. It’s great to start off that way.”

Helget eventually scored when Brianna Romme hit a two-out single with the bases loaded, driving in two runs. It was the start of a five-run inning for the Monarchs that would put them comfortably in control.

“That was a key at-bat, I think,” said TMP coach Melissa Schoepf. “They got up by one, and you could kind of see some momentum they had. She got up there on that first pitch, and I think that gave the team some confidence to think we could do this and hit off her, too. That’s why Alison is a good, consistent first batter because she can set the tone for the rest of the team.”

That was all the cushion Lacy needed on the mound. She finished with 11 strikeouts and kept the Broncos (2-19) at bay until the run-rule came into effect.

“It was important to settle into my groove after the first inning,” Lacy said. “I had to know that if I threw where coach wanted me to, then it was going to get the job done.”

The Monarchs (17-6) left the bases loaded in the third, then struck for four more runs in the fourth on four hits and a Russell error. That pushed the lead to 9-1 and put the mercy rule within reach.

And when Lacy hit a towering pop fly to right field in the bottom of the fifth, the Russell right fielder couldn’t handle the ball, allowing two more runs to score to end the game early.

“The first inning, the nerves were running through and the adrenaline was running through,” Lacy said. “It was just one of those things where we had to get settled in and settled throughout the game. Just play like we know how to play.”

Schoepf said she was more than pleased with the effort and patience the team has shown all year. That included being rained out Tuesday night in Russell prior to the regional title game being played.

Wet field conditions forced the game to be moved to Hays on Thursday.

“You never know in sports what can happen,” Schoepf said. “They had nothing to lose, and we knew that coming in. We had everything to lose, and they had nothing to lose. We were going to have to be able to play and keep our focus throughout the whole tournament.”