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Friday, June 6, 2014

Highlands learns valuable lessons in state tournament

Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands first baseman Brennah Dutcher catches a bunt attempt and throws to first for a double-play in Friday's state softball tournament game against Owensboro Apollo. Highlands finished the historic year 27-14.
Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands senior Ashley Grosser attempts a bunt against Owensboro Apollo. Grosser and Kendall Turner are the lone two seniors on the team.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

OWENSBORO – The good news is the Highlands Ladybirds softball team can say it’s seen the best teams in Kentucky.

They hope to learn from their first-ever experience that ended Saturday in the double-elimination tournament. Highlands (27-14) fell to 3rd Region champion Owensboro Apollo, 12-2 in the morning then 16th Region champion Ashland, 12-0 in the afternoon.

Head Coach Rob Coffey said he wanted to aim for the cream of the crop when he took the job back in September, 2012. The Ladybirds won the 36th District championship, their first-ever 9th Region crown and first-ever state tournament game in the historic season. They graduate just center fielder Ashley Grosser and left fielder Kendall Turner.

“We just had our speech,” Coffey said. “Our speech was about two years ago. You want to leave the program better than when you came in. Our seniors did. They led us through some thick and thin and really helped turn this thing around. The coaching staff puts a lot of time into it. We tell them what to do and how to do it. They put the time in. Coaching girls is not always the easiest thing to do. You have to have solid seniors to push the program forward. They’ll always be a part of the family.”

Turner and Grosser helped Highlands to a winning 18-12 season as junior last year. That Ladybird team lost 3-0 to Notre Dame in the 9th Region semifinals. Highlands went 45-26 the last two years.

“I just want to say, ‘Thank You for everything we’ve been through this season,” Grosser said. “It’s been an amazing year – something I’ll always remember. I hope the girls can make it this far next year and the years after that.”

The two remember the struggles of the program. The Ladybirds finished a combined 24-33 as freshmen and sophomores. They won the district championship as freshmen, but led Highlands to only its second and third appearances in the region semifinals prior to entering high school.

“It was a great season,” Turner said. “It was unimaginable that we beat Ryle, Boone County and all those big teams in the same season. It sets the bar high for the future.”

Highlands had been solid defensively most of the season. But the Ladybirds committed five errors in each of the two contests leading to a number of unearned runs.

“We didn’t start out well,” Coffey said. “We didn’t feel the energy level was as high as we had been in the past five, six weeks. We tried to mentally prepare them for distractions. But they get in the way. There are a lot of teams that are down here for the fourth, fifth and sixth time in a row. I am not an excuse guy. But we had girls making errors that normally don’t make errors. We had girls who were hitting all year that didn’t hit. But the girls expect to get here again. It’s a new game when you get here the second time.”

Highlands managed just one hit off Ashland pitcher Megan Hensley. That was a Turner single in the fifth inning. Hensely finished with six strikeouts.

The Kittens smacked eight hits in the win. Sydney Whitt, McKenzie Vanover and Sydney Campbell had two hits each to lead Ashland. Vanover hit a solo home run in the second and finished with three runs batted in. Ashland scored six in the first and finished it with five in the third.

The loss to Apollo ended Highlands’ school-record 19-game winning streak.

The loss snapped their school-record 19-game winning streak. The Ladybirds had not lost since an 8-6 defeat at East Central (Indiana) on April 22.

Apollo (22-10) outhit Highlands, 11-5 smacking five home runs. Katelyn Knotts hit two for the E-gals with teammates Sarah Smith, Savanna Williams and Ashley Adkisson hitting one each.

Highlands did not have any multi-hitters in the contest. Shelby Graybill smacked a solo home run in the first inning to put the Ladybirds up 1-0 in the first inning. It was her ninth of the season.

But Apollo came back with three in the bottom of the first. Smith hit a two-run home run and Williams hit a solo one to put the E-gals up 3-1.

Apollo came back with another run in the third with two outs. Autumn Grady reached on an error and pinch-runner Ashley Spalding advanced to third when Williams singled. Haley Carter then hit a double near the right-field line to put Apollo up 4-1.

Highlands came back and scored once in the fourth. Kendall Turner singled with one out and advanced to second when Ashley Grosser singled in front of the plate. However, Turner was thrown out trying to advance to third and Grosser went to second on the throw.

Brennah Dutcher came through with an infield single moving Grosser to third. Grosser then scored on an Apollo throwing error.

But Apollo came back with two in the bottom of the frame. Smith and Knott hit consecutive two-out home runs to put the E-gals up 6-2.

The E-gals then finished the game in the fifth. They scored six runs on four errors. The big blow was Adkisson’s three-run blast.

Autumn Grady took the win for the E-gals and Bailey Spencer took the loss. Spencer pitched into the fifth before Miranda Mason took over. Grady had six strikeouts and a walk. Spencer struck out one and walked two.

Spencer also took the loss in the second game finishing 21-8 on the year. She threw the first two innings before Mason pitched three. The two combined to strike out two and walk four.

“I think we need to keep our heads held high,” Spencer said. “Sure we made some mistakes when we got here. But overall, the season was definitely positive. I’m so proud of everyone on the team.”

McCracken County entered the tournament as the top-ranked team in Kentucky per the Kentucky Softball Coaches Association poll. Top 10 programs Lone Oak, Reidland and Heath consolidated to form the school last summer. Coffey said depth will be key to catching teams like McCracken County.

“I had two seventh-graders and two eighth-graders in at one time,” Coffey said. “The depth the size of these schools is juniors. We still want to stay with fundamentals. But the more depth we create, the more competition we create in our practices. That’s what’s going to take us to the next level.”

There was some huge controversy in the game prior to the second game between Ashland and Johnson Central. Johnson Central’s Rachelle Fairchild clearly hit the ball over the 210-foot temporary fence for a game-winning home run off Hensley. But the umpires huddled and ruled it went through the fence for a ground-double leaving the tieing run at third. Hensley retired the next batter after a long delay to allow Ashland to advance.

Highlands can build around seven starters next year. That includes Spencer, Graybill, Dutcher and Haley Coffey. Graybill hit two home runs in the tournament.

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