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Friday, May 30, 2014

Boro-bound! Highlands rallies for first-ever region championship

Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands seventh-grade second baseman Rachel Gabbard makes a play in Thursday's 9th Region championship game. Gabbard had a key two-run double to lift the Ladybirds to their first-ever region championship, 8-7 over Notre Dame.
Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands junior Payton Leighty makes a catch in the championship game.
Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands sophomore Bailey Spencer delivers to the plate in the regional championship game. Spencer came back nine days from Appendix surgery to help Highlands to the title.
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS – One giant mountain stood in the way of a trip to the Commonwealth’s version of the softball promised land.

The Highlands Ladybirds had taken care of the other 9th Region powers. But they needed to figure out a way to end a six-game losing streak to the defending region champion Notre Dame Pandas to nab their first 9th Region crown in their first-ever appearance in the title game. That included a 3-0 Panda win in last year’s 9th Region semifinals.

It also did not help that Notre Dame (28-6) scored six times in the top half of its first at-bat. But the Ladybirds (26-11) dug deep, tied the game, took the lead late and held on for a historic 8-7 victory Thursday at Northern Kentucky University.

The win helped Highlands extend its school records for most wins in school history and 18-game winning streak. The Ladybirds also beat the Pandas for the first time since 2011.

The win puts Highlands in the state tournament at Owensboro’s Jack C. Fisher Park on Thursday against the 14th Region champion Estill County Lady Engineers (26-13). The game starts at 7 p.m. Central Standard Time.

“We had a vision at the beginning of the year that this was our year,” said Ashley Grosser, Highlands senior outfielder. “We just kept pushing and pushing. We anything was possible because we expect more of ourselves. What can you say? I couldn’t do it without my teammates.”

A big key for Highlands has been that the coaching staff knows how to handle teen-age girls. It also helps that Coffey has raised two daughters in Haley, a sophomore, and Morgan, a seventh-grader, who play on the team.

“Girls are completely wired different than men,” Coffey said. “The wiring in their heads does not react to the wiring in male coaches sometimes. The adjustment before the winning streak is we felt we needed to get inside their heads. We’d pull them aside and start talking about everything outside of softball so we could figure out why they shut down and don’t react to things. I have a great coaching staff. That’s one of the unique things about girls where you learn each one individually. It’s not like boys where you tell them to shut up and get out there.”

Highlands struggled against Notre Dame junior pitcher Haylee Smith in last year’s tournament. But the Ladybirds got to her for eight hits and three walks. They also took advantage of one Notre Dame error. Smith struck out seven.

Brennah Dutcher led Highlands going 2-for-3 with two runs batted in and a run scored. No one else had more than two hits, but Whitney Quillen tripled and Rachel Gabbard doubled.

“We knew Haylee Smith was a dominant pitcher in the region,” Quillen said. “So we tried to shorten up our swings and poke at it. Our Coach (Coffey) said just to score inning by inning and we’ll catch them. Don’t try to score a bunch now. We did. It’s quite an accomplishment.”

Highlands pitcher Bailey Spencer may not have thrown her best game. But she did settle down after the first inning. Spencer allowed 10 hits, struck out two and walked seven.

Amanda Meagher, Laura Finke and Kennedy Baugh had two hits each for the Pandas. Meagher had two runs batted in with Abby Jones doubling and scoring twice. Kelsey Michael added a double for Notre Dame.

Highlands began to cut into the lead in the bottom of the first. Quillen led off the inning with a double and scored when Shelby Graybill singed her home. Dutcher hit in the other Highlands run.

The Ladybirds came back to tie the game at six in the third against Smith, who lost to a Northern Kentucky team for the first time this year. Graybill reached first on a fielder’s choice and Taylor Baioni ran for her. Kendall Turner then reached on an infield single before Grosser was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Dutcher then reached on an error scoring Baioni before Gabbard, a seventh-grader, doubled to left field scoring Turner and Grosser. Then with two out, Payton Leighty reached on an error scoring Dutcher to tie the game.

“I haven’t seen anything like that,” Coach Coffey said of Gabbard. “It’s been an unbelievable roller coaster ride the entire season. She’s one of those key players who rises to the occasion.”

Notre Dame did put a runner on third with one out in the fifth. But Spencer got Sullivan to strike out and Michael to ground out to end the threat.

The Ladybirds came through and scored twice in the sixth to go up 8-6. Morgan Coffey walked before Leighty laid down a bunt. The Pandas tried to get Morgan Coffey at second, but the throw went into center. However, they got her at third.

Following a ground out that forced Leighty at second, Haley Coffey and Graybill drew walks to load the bases. That’s when things became interesting.

Turner appeared to have fouled the ball to the right. But the umpires huddled and ruled the ball hit Turner’s wrist allowing Quillen to score the go-ahead run.

“I know that the hand is part of the bat above a certain point,” Turner said. “I know I missed it by a centimeter and a half. (The wrist) was as purple as it will get as soon as it hit the hand. It feels unreal that we’re going to state.”

Coach Coffey said he initially felt like many in the stands that it hit Tuner’s bat initially. But he said he then checked Turner and felt differently.

“Honestly, I hate winning on that because it’s a shame,” Coach Coffey said. “I took a sprint in the Notre Dame dugout and it’s sad. I’m happy we won. But I feel horrible for them.”

Highlands then added an insurance run that proved huge the next inning. Grosser singled to right scoring Baioni.

But Notre Dame did not go quietly in the seventh inning. Jones reached on a fielder’s choice and moved to second on a wild pitch before Meagher drew a walk. Then with two out, Jones and Meagher pulled off a double steal.

The Pandas appeared to have tied the game when Michael doubled to right. However, Meagher missed third base and had to retreat leaving runners at second and third with Highlands up 8-7. Following a walk to load the bases, Spencer got Finke to pop out to Dutcher in shallow right to end the game.

Dutcher was named tournament most valuable player. Graybil, Quillen and Spencer joined her on the team along with Newport Central Catholic pitcher Haley Meyers.

Notre Dame went 1-2 in the state tournament last year. The Pandas graduate six seniors from this year’s 35th District champion.

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