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Friday, June 6, 2014

Ladybirds Engineer first-ever state tournament win

Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands seventh-grader Chloe Jansen scores in the fouth inning of Thursday's state tournament game against Estill County. Highlands won 4-1.
Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands sophomore Shelby Graybill cranks a two-run home run in the first inning against Estill County in the state tournament in Owensboro. It marked the eighth home run of the year for Graybill.
Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands sophomore Haley Coffey makes another diving stop in the state tournament game against Estill County.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

OWENSBORO – It may not have been a win or go home game situation.

But the Highlands Ladybirds softball team wanted to use it to set a tone for the rest of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Fastpitch State Softball Tournament. The 9th Region champions started off the tournament on the right foot overcoming inexperience and jitters in a 4-1 over the experienced 14th Region champion Estill County Lady Engineers. The game took place Thursday at Jack C. Fisher Park.

The win was not only their first-ever state tournament victory following their first-ever region championship. The Ladybirds will not be one of four teams to lose their only two games in the double-elimination tournament like a lot of first-time state tournament teams often do.

“The two-game elimination really helps us,” said Haley Coffey, Highlands sophomore shortstop. “We don’t know any of these teams out here so we’re just coming out here and playing. They don’t have Notre Dame or (Newport Central Catholic) on their jerseys. We’ll be fine the rest of the tournament.”

They come back Friday at 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time to face the 3rd Region champion Owensboro Apollo E-gals (21-10) in the next round of the winner’s bracket. They Ladybirds (27-11) will bring their school-record 19-game winning streak into the game. They are still the hottest team in the tournament.

“We played jittery in the first few innings – untypical of us,” said Rob Coffey, Highlands Head Coach. “We had some basic plays that we let get by us. But we straightened it back up. We struck out more than I thought we should have in this game. But I think these girls will come out (Friday) a different team. The spectacular of the event had an effect on them (Thursday).”

Highlands arrived in Owensboro and toured the facilities prior to playing. The biggest adjustment to Fisher Park is the infield extends beyond the bases making the outfield seem shorter and temporary fences have been put up 210 feet from home plate.

Estill County (26-14) won its eighth region crown in 10 years to make it back to Owensboro. But the Lady Engineers fell to 5-15 in the state tournament during that time. They’ve gone back to Irvine located to the east of Richmond without a win five times during that run.

Highlands used some timely hitting to overcome three errors. The Ladybirds outhit the lady Engineers, 7-5. Junior third baseman Whitney Quillen led the Ladybirds going 2-for-4 with a double and run batted in. Teammate Shelby Graybill had a two-run home run with two RBI and two runs scored and Rachel Gabbard added a double.

“I’m only a seventh-grader so seeing these four fields in a big stadium is overwhelming and amazing,” Gabbard said. “The feeling of being here is incredible. We have to get up, be ready to go and have our energy level up (Friday).”

Estill County did not commit any errors. Taylor Wiseman led the Lady Engineers going 2-for-2 with a double. Highlands held Estill County’s top two hitters in leadoff hitter Kennedy Flynn and clean-up hitter Cheyenne Rawlins to an 0-for-3 game. Flynn entered the tournament batting .421 with 26 stolen bases and Rawlins batted .354.

Neither team hit well with runners in scoring position. Highlands hit just .167 (2-for-12) and Estill County batted just .125 (1-for-8) in those situations.

Highlands sophomore Bailey Spencer improved to 21-6 with the win. She struck out one and did not walk any Estill County batters. Spencer also did not throw any wild pitches.

“Bailey is learning that if she can control the game by throwing strikes and keeping girls off-balance, our defense is going to pull us out of some things,” Coach Coffey said. “She helps us sometimes and we help her. It was nice to see.”

Michaela Gross (19-11) also pitched a complete game for Estill County. She struck out eight, walked three and also did not throw any wild pitches.

Estill County took its only lead in the first inning on an unearned run. McKeely Muncie came all the way to third on a Highlands scoring error and scored when MacKenzie Angel grounded out to second.

But Highlands went ahead for good in the bottom of the first. Haley Coffey singled with one out and Graybill blasted a two-run home run.

The Ladybirds had a huge chance to break the game open in the third. Quillen led off the inning with a double and moved to third when Haley Coffey grounded out. After Graybill walked, Kendall Turner reached on a fielder’s choice to load the bases. But Gross struck out Ashley Grosser and coaxed Brennah Dutcher to force Turner at second on a ground out.

Highlands did come through with an insurance run in the fourth. Gabbard doubled to left and seventh-grader Chloe Jansen ran for her with two out. Quillen singled up the middle to score Jansen making it 3-1 Ladybirds.

“(Coach Coffey) said to just run on any contact and try to get (home) as fast as you can,” Jansen said. “They runner on deck tells you which way to slide if they throw it in. You have to use your instincts to get there.”

The Ladybirds added another run in the fifth. Graybill walked and stole second. Graybill then moved to third when Turner singled. Turner stole second before Grosser struck out. Dutcher then grounded out to short scoring Graybill to make the final score of 4-1.

Estill County did put its first two runners on base in the second. But Quillen recorded a double play to stifle that threat.

“That was huge because they get runners on first and second with no out and (Rawlins) is up,” Coach Coffey said. “(Rawlins) is a masher. Bailey pitched her really well. We tried to keep her off-balance. We got a nice one-hopper to one of our two best defensive players. She executed and got us out of a jam.”

If Highlands beats Apollo, the Ladybirds would take on either Scott County or South Laurel at 4 p.m. If they lose, they take on either Johnson Central or Ashland Blazer at 2 p.m. in the loser’s bracket.

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