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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Ladybirds ready to make more history

Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands pitcher Bailey Spencer winds up and fires home in last week's 9th Region Tournament. Spencer owns a record of 20-6 with 110 strikeouts entering the state softball tournament starting Thursday.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

It started with a vision that is quickly coming to fruition.

The school named Rob Coffey the head coach of the Highlands Ladybirds fastpitch softball team in September of 2012. The prevailing thought among many at that time was to catch the Ryle Lady Raiders. Ryle had won seven of the past eight region titles at that point and captured the 2006 state championship.

But Coffey, a 1986 Highlands graduate, did not want to aim for just Ryle. He wanted to aim for the best in Kentucky. The Ladybirds passed Ryle and everyone else in the 9th Region with their first-ever region title, 8-7 win over 24th-ranked Notre Dame a week ago at Northern Kentucky University. Ryle has not even made it out of the rugged 33rd District since Coffey became head coach.

Highlands (26-11) will see the best in the state starting Thursday at Owensboro’s Jack C. Fisher Park in the double-elimination tournament. The Ladybirds enter the tournament with the longest current winning streak at 18 in a row. They have not lost since an 8-6 loss at East Central (Indiana) on April 22 as part of a seven-game losing streak.

“We plan on getting (to Owensboro) early, relaxing and not stressing too much,” said Payton Leighty, Highlands junior right fielder. “Even though it is Finals week, we’re still trying to stay focused in practice and have fun to make sure everyone is ready. All of our teachers are being great about this. Our principals are trying to help figure out whether to take finals earlier or later. They’re supportive of us going to state.”

The lone opponent the Ladybirds have faced is 12th Region champion East Jessamine. The Lady Jaguars beat the visiting Ladybirds, 14-5 on April 12.

The first opponent is a team with plenty of state tournament experience in the 14th Region champion Estill County Lady Engineers (26-13) led by veteran head coach Shirley Beard. Beard is in her 14th season as head coach and 29th on staff overall.

“Our number one thing is to worry about ourselves and control what we can control,” Coffey said. “However, I do have some people doing research for me. I will sit down and call some coaches. It’s the normal (routine). I’m sure they’re doing the same thing. I’ll try to get as much information as we can. If we do what we are supposed to do, things have been working out for us pretty well.”

Estill County is making its eighth appearance in the state tournament in the previous 10 years. The Lady Engineers have gone 5-14 in the state tournament during that time going 0-2 five times including last year with losses to Boyle County (3-0) then Oldham County (10-0) in six innings. They hope to turn that around this year.

“We are going to have to play solid defense, hit the ball and get some breaks to go our way,” Beard said. “They don’t quit or give up until that last out.”

East Jessamine is the only common opponent of Highlands and Estill County. East Jessamine defeated the Lady Engineers, 6-2 on March 27 in Nicholasville.

The big key for the Highlands turnaround from the 8-11 start has been a no-tolerance policy on mental errors. Players were benched if they made the same mental errors they went over constantly in practice. He even said the players wanted the coaches to coach them that way.

“The no-tolerance was misunderstood when it came out,” Coffey said. “I had a lot of calls on that. People said Highlands was taking girls out for making errors. That wasn’t it at all. Against Boone County (on April 21) the day after they made the decision to go to the no-tolerance, I had five starters on the bench by the second inning. We lost the game 10-3 understandably. But I never had to take another one out after that.”

When Coffey took the job, he wanted to see the team bat between .350 and .400 and the team Earned-Run averages dip to the twos. The Ladybirds are batting .344 (312-for-908) with 273 runs scored, 228 runs batted in, 44 doubles, 13 triples and 10 home runs. Highlands has outscored opponents by an average of about 7.5-3.6.

Sophomore catcher Shelby Graybill leads the Ladybirds with a .520 average with 48 RBI and team-highs of 19 doubles and seven home runs. She hit three home runs in a win over Lloyd Memorial.

Highlands has two other players batting over .400 in junior third baseman Whitney Quillen (.404) and sophomore first baseman Brennah Dutcher (.457) and five more batting over .300. Dutcher leads Highlands with 50 runs batted in and Quillen has two team-highs with six triples and six stolen bases.

Sophomore Bailey Spencer has provided solid pitching all season for Highlands. Spencer (20-6) has a 2.24 earned-run average with 110 strikeouts, 49 walks, 123 hits and 72 runs including 47 earned in 147 innings pitched.

They key for Bailey and the Highlands defense is a better start than the region championship game. Highlands had four wild pitches in the first inning of the region championship and fell behind 6-0 before rallying to tie it in the third.

“We talked about making outs instead of just taking outs,” Coffey said. “We need to take outs away instead of just taking the outs they give us. That’s been huge for our mentality. We’re doing a lot of things right throwing the ball to the right bases and making it happen.”

Eighth-grader Miranda Mason (4-1) helped the Ladybirds to the 36th District championship and threw the school’s first-ever perfect game against Covington Holy Cross in the regional quarterfinals. Mason has 15 strikeouts, seven walks, 40 hits and 23 runs including 10 earned in 40 innings pitched. Junior Payton Leighty threw two games this year as well.

Highlands has also received a huge lift from its bench. Players like freshman Taylor Baioni and seventh-grader Morgan Coffey have given the Ladybirds speed on the bases. Highlands hopes to avoid base-running mistakes in the state tournament.

“It’s all about the practice,” Baioni said. “Running the bases in practice makes us better. Rob (Coffey) putting us in situations helps us realize how we have to prepare for the games. It’s about being smart on the bases.”

Estill County enters the tournament outscoring opponents by an average of about 6.6-3.3. The Lady Engineers are batting .302 (321-1,063) with 82 walks, 104 strikeouts, 227 runs scored, 170 RBI, 62 doubles, eight triples and six home runs. They have just four players batting more than .300 led by junior center fielder Kennedy Flynn at .421. She has a team-high 26 stolen bases.

Estill County senior first baseman Cheyenne Rawlins is next at .354 with a team-highs of 19 doubles, three home runs and 25 RBI. Sophomore McKeely Muncie (.352) leads the team with 28 RBI.

Senior pitcher Michaela Gross owns a solid 1.34 earned-run average in her third year pitching on varsity. She has allowed just 93 runs including 39 earned in 204 innings pitched with 220 strikeouts, 192 hits and 21 walks.

“Overall, our whole team needs to be hitting,” Graybill said. “It doesn’t matter who is on the mound. We need to keep up with what we’re doing. Our fast girls need to get the bunts down and the power hitters like myself, Brennah and Kendall who can smack the ball, need to do their jobs.”

The field saw eight teams ranked in the final Kentucky Softball Coaches Association poll win their regions including the top three in McCracken County (1st Region), defending state champion Greenwood (4th) and Madisonville-North Hopkins (2nd). Greenwood and Reidland own three state championships since the tournament began in 1995, which is only behind Owensboro Catholic’s five. Reidland consolidated with Lone Oak and Heath to form McCracken County this year.

Directions to Fisher Park in Owensboro:

1. Go North on I-471 for 2.5 miles.

2. Hop on I-71 south and follow to Louisville for 97 miles.

3. Go east on I-64 for 73.4 miles into Indiana.

4. Take Exit 57A and go south on US 231 for 40 miles into Owensboro. It eventually becomes Henderson Road.

5. Turn left on Worthington Road.

6. Take third left onto West 5th Street Road.

7. Address of 3900 West 5th Street Road will be on your right.
Total trip is approximately 215 miles in three hours and 25 minutes.   

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