|Instagram Photo. The four Highlands seniors, from left, are Brennah Dutcher, Bailey Spencer, Haley Coffey and Shelby Graybill. The Ladybirds finished 24-9 last season.|
The Highlands Ladybirds softball team entered last season off its first-ever state tournament appearance and stood six outs from repeating as 9th Region champions with a 3-0 lead over the Notre Dame Pandas in the title game. But Notre Dame rallied and held on for a 5-4 victory to end the Highlands season at 24-9 overall.
The top teams in the state have depth. That's something Highlands has developed in recent years with 44 players currently in the program that trains year-round.
"We're going to keep pushing forward," said Rob Coffey, fourth-year Highlands Head Coach. "That's the largest we've ever had. We're developing the excitement in the program. That's been our goal since we've been here. We have not had a better offseason."
Highlands once again enters the season as region favorites with the graduation of just one starters in third baseman and lead-off hitter Whitney Quillen. Quillen took her talents to nearby Thomas More College. Outfielder Kara Fornash and back-up pitcher Miranda Mason are also not back this year.
It marks the final go-around for four seniors in first baseman Brennah Dutcher, shortstop Haley Coffey, pitcher Bailey Spencer and catcher Shelby Graybill. The four have helped make Highlands into a region contender.
"We did not want to go home that early last year," Dutcher said. "It was disappointing to everyone. We have a lot of fun. I dance all the time. But when it comes to the field, we're dedicated, serious and focused on everything. These are my sisters."
Graybill signed to play at the University of Louisville in the fall. The slugger has a career batting average of more than .400 and has finished among the top players in the state the past two years in home runs and doubles. Graybill batted .586 last year with 12 home runs and 50 runs batted in. Graybill has struck out just three times the past three years.
Teams can't pitch around Graybill because she is surrounded by solid hitters including Dutcher. Dutcher has committed to continue her career at Dennison University, an NCAA Division III school in Granville, Ohio.
Haley Coffey hit near the top most of last season. She is a six-year starter and has a career batting average of .310 and a fielding percentage of .975. Coffey will take her talents to Taylor University, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school located in Upland, Indiana. It is 70 miles north of Indianapolis.
Spencer returns for her fourth season as the ace on the mound. Spencer owns a career earned-run average of 2.3. She's committed to Thomas More College.
Also returning in the infield is freshman second-baseman Rachel Gabbard. Gabbard will be starting her third season on the right side of the infield. Highlands needed to find someone to fill in at third base and freshman Zoie Barth grabbed the position after taking last year off.
Highlands returned plenty of help in the outfield led by junior Taylor Baioni and sophomore Brooke Dill. Freshman Morgan Coffey and freshman Chloe Jansen will see action there.
"At this point, we're trying to focus on what we focused on last year and making sure we have that sharpened," Baioni said. "We need to hit the cut-off when we need to and know where the ball is going. Since we all have experience, (we're learning) what all of us can do."
Also back is sophomore Josie Daley. She played designated hitter some last year and will either catch or play infield for Highlands this year.
Coffey said Highlands is looking at some options for the back-up pitcher. But sophomore Ella Greiwe looks to be the front-runner there.
The Ladybirds opened their season with a 12-0 thrashing of the host Simon Kenton Lady Pioneers. They recorded 14 hits while Spencer limited Simon Kenton to one hit on three strikeouts and two walks.
Highlands also took advantage of six Simon Kenton errors while committing just one. Graybill led the way going 4-for-5 with two runs batted in, two singles, two doubles and a run scored.
Three more Highlands players had at least two hits. Dutcher went 3-for-5 with two RBI and a run scored and Spencer went 3-for-3.
The Ladybirds also showed their speed on the bases. Dutcher stole two bases with Dill and Jansen swiping one each.
Highlands plays a tough schedule. That includes four schools from Ohio.
"You want to see where you shape up," Coach Coffey said. "If you look at our schedule, we don't shy from anyone. We've set the schedule up to test these players and see these good pitcher and good players. We hope to be lucky enough to face some teams we might play in a state championship. We're playing teams that will prepare us."
The Ladybirds play in the rugged Big M Chevrolet Classic at Elizabethtown over the weekend. The first game is against Anderson County at 8:45 p.m. Allen County-Scottsville from the 4th Region and Louisville Butler from the 6th are also in their pool. Defending state champion McCracken County will also be there.