|Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands first baseman Brennah Dutcher comes through a clutch hit in Tuesday's 9th Region semifinal game against Boone County. The Ladybirds won 6-3 to advance to the regional championship for the first time in school history.|
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAMFort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS – The objective changed from taking care of the underdog to making history.
This marked the third appearance in the 9th Region semifinals for the Highlands Ladybirds fastpitch softball program. But in its 14-year history, Highlands had yet to advance past the 9th Region semifinals.
The Ladybirds took care of that Tuesday at Northern Kentucky University with a 6-3 victory over the Boone County Lady Rebels. Highlands (25-11) added on to its school records for the most wins in program history and 17-game winning streak. The Lady Rebels (21-8) beat the Ladybirds twice during the regular season.
“Since we had our talk about halfway through the season, they turned their season around and focused on what they can do,” said Rob Coffey, Highlands Head Coach. “They believe and trust in their skills. It is completely showing. I’ll put our defense out there with anybody. They have been phenomenal.”
Highlands takes on defending region champion Notre Dame (28-5) on Thursday for the region title. Game time is 5:30 p.m. back at NKU. The Pandas beat the Ladybirds, 5-3 on April 16. This marks the first time a team from Boone County has not been in the title game since 2000.
The big story of the game was the return of sophomore pitcher Bailey Spencer just nine days after doctors performed emergency Appendix surgery on her. Spencer walked just one and allowed just seven hits. Spencer left runners in scoring position in the first, second, fourth and seventh innings. She retired nine in a row at one point.
“I want to be out here with my team,” Spencer said. “Around Saturday, it stopped hurting. I threw over the weekend to see how it felt. We are here to win and we will take it from anyone. (Coach Coffey) said to come back whenever I feel like it. Having such a good defense helped so much.”
Spencer outdualed Boone County pitcher Dallis Knotts. Knotts struck out six and walked just one.
“I’m happy for (Spencer) and I’m happy for the team,” Coffey said. “Miranda (Mason) did a tremendous job holding down the fort. I couldn’t have asked for anything more out of an eighth-grade pitcher. But Bailey is our ace. She’s a competitor. It was not just good for her, but for the team for her to lift us over the top.”
The Highlands defense had some mistakes in the second inning. But the Lady Rebels scored just one run off those two Ladybird errors.
Highlands outhit Boone County, 10-7. Whitney Quillen led the way going 4-for-4 with two runs scored and two stolen bases. Teammate Brennah Dutcher came through also going 3-for-3 with four runs batted in, a home run, double and a run scored. She fell a triple short of hitting for the cycle.
“I couldn’t count on my hands how many times (Dutcher) has done that (come up with big hits) during the 17-game winning streak,” Coffey said. “She has done everything for us at the plate. She’s really starting to make a name for herself.”
The game started off well for Highlands. Quillen singled and Haley Coffey bunted her to second before Shelby Graybill singled her home. Graybill went 1-for-2 reaching base all four times before Taylor Baioni ran for her. She had two RBI.
Boone County came back and tied the game at 1-1 in the top of the second. Madison Graham doubled, reached third when Haley Delaney singled and scored on a Highlands error.
But the Ladybirds came back to score three in the third to go up 4-1. Quillen led off with a single and moved to second when Haley Coffey grounded out. She stole third then scored when Graybill hit a ground ball to second and Quillen beat the throw home. Kendall Turner then singled Baioni to third and advanced to second on the throw. That’s when Dutcher singled them home and took second on a Boone County error.
The Lady Rebels came back with two in the fourth to trim the margin to 4-3. Olivia Jackson singled with one out and took second when Graham grounded out before moving to third when Delaney singled. Sydney Foster then doubled Jackson and pitnch runner Starr Smith home.
Boone County did not threaten again until the seventh inning with two out. Makenna Black and Knotts singled before Spencer got Ryley Grau to ground out back to the mound.
The Ladybirds added insurance runs in the fifth to make the final score. Knotts hit Graybill with a pitch and Haley Coffey bunted Baioni to second. After Ashley Grosser grounded out, Dutcher cranked one over the center field wall.
“(Knotts) is such a good pitcher. She works the corners,” Dutcher said. “I used that to my advantage knowing it was coming. I knew it was going to go somewhere. I just put it in play.”
Highlands lost 3-0 to the Pandas on the semifinals last year. The Ladybirds are 43-23 since Coach Coffey took over the program in the fall of 2012.