Highlands seniors Brennah Dutcher, Haley Coffey, Shelby Graybill and Bailey Spencer have played key roles leading the team from trying to find an identity to 9th Region contender. Since entering high school, this class has not seen its season end before the region semifinals. Highlands had only gone that far once before 2013 back in 2008.
In their four years of high school, Highlands has gone 85-44 with two 36th District championships and two straight appearances in the 9th Region title game. Highlands won its first-ever 9th Region crown in 2014 before going 1-2 in the state tournament. The Ladybirds lost in the region title game to Notre Dame last year at Northern Kentucky University.
"These seniors have been the core of the program for four years," said Rob Coffey, Highlands Head Coach. "They've shown a work ethic. We've only graduated three kids (Whitney Quillen in 2015, Ashley Grosser and Kendall Turner in 2014) in the four years I've been here. Those players were great players. But the journey with the rebuilding has been surrounded by the seniors this year. We're going to miss them. But the thing they've done is leave the legacy on the program - their work ethic, how they approach games, how they approach practice, how they've turned it on between the lines. All those things are being passed down to the kids we have in the program now. They're getting great examples from these four that will live on for a long time."
The four have often been there when Highlands has done off-season workouts. That's helped Coach Coffey and staff transition from teaching fundamentals to preparing the team for game situations.
"'We've really been able to straighten up the sloppy play, the lack of skills in some places and get past that," Coach Coffey said. "We've worked on things that experienced teams can work on. Instead of working on ground balls, we're working on double plays and fine-tuning double plays. In fact, we turned a pretty one this weekend. Instead of working on hitting, we're working on slapping, pull-back swings, pull-back bunts. We're working on different types of swings and different types of approaches to different pitchers. We're not just in there taking swings. We're in there to adjust to different pitchers and different styles. It's not just these seniors. These younger kids bought into it a long time ago. We have some really skilled kids coming up. It's a cycle now. It's not a one-hit wonder anymore."
Haley Coffey and Graybill have started for more than five years now. Haley Coffey broke into the shortstop role in the eighth grade and Graybill has started since the sixth grade. Dutcher and Spencer are both four-year starters. Dutcher moved to the area from Wisconsin before her freshman year and Spencer transferred in from Dixie Heights.
"The memories we've shared and how far we've come along," Dutcher said. "Everyone has improved. If you saw our team four years ago, we wouldn't even look like half the team we are today. It's a whole different world with us now."
Spencer has filled in a huge role on the mound. The Highlands pitching struggled with consistency before her arrival.
"I've grown a lot not just speed-wise but to where I have confidence on the mound," Spencer said. "I don't have to think at all and worry about mechanics when I'm out there. I am just able to go out there and do what I love to do. It helps with our defense too."
Graybill has started at every position in her career. But she's mostly played first, third or catcher. Graybill has six home runs on the season. With power at other places, teams don't pitch around Graybill as much as past seasons.
"I think it's funny when pitchers do pitch around me," Graybill said. "We have Brennah behind me to get the runs in. It's actually fantastic to have multiple people in the line-up to get the job done so that it's not only you because it's been on one single person before. It has to be a team effort."
Dutcher has been the clean-up hitter for the last couple seasons behind Graybill. She played at third base as a freshman before moving over to first base.
Haley Coffey has been the shortstop for five years now. She has batted near the top including lead-off. Her speed, hitting and on-base percentage have gone up this year. She and her younger sister Morgan Coffey would both say they're self-motivated for success.
"I think the reason I'm so self-motivated is because I see how others succeed and fail and I compare their work ethics and attitudes and I form my own," Haley Coffey said. "My work ethic is high. My attitude is optimistic."
Haley Coffey and Graybill have both come back from injuries. Haley Coffey thought her season was over after sustaining a left hand injury. But she's back on the field.
"I went and got a second opinion and ended up going back to the first opinion and he's letting me play now," Haley Coffey said. "I'll probably get reconstructive surgery after the season. But for now, he's letting me play. I'm doing the icing afterwards. Getting back out on the field was huge for me. Now that I'm back, everybody has gained their confidence."
Graybill bounced back from a knee injury suffered in the fall. She played designated hitter to start the season before moving back into the field.
"I've tried to come back not only for the team but for myself. I'm trying to be a good leader," Graybill said. "Play your hearts out and give it 110 percent because you never know when it's going to be your last game, especially not only injury but being a senior."
"When our season was over after we lost in the region semifinals, (Highlands assistant coach) Bert (Richey) gave me a hug," Haley Coffey said. "We felt we were the class to get over the hump because we've been so close every year. That was a goal and it just never happened so it was pretty emotional."
All four players have had at least a step parent graduate from Highlands. Coach Coffey graduated from Highlands in 1986 and played football for the Bluebirds and Bailey's Dad Matt graduated from Highlands a few years earlier as did her grandfather Wynn Webster. Dutcher's step-dad Kevin Barrett graduated from Highlands along with Graybill's mother Holly Matthews. Graybill's bloodline to Highlands runs deep with the Kyle.
The team recently won 10 straight. But Highlands lost three straight on Friday and Saturday in a round-robin event at East Jessamine.
"We could win state with our defense," Dutcher said. "With those teams, when you look at their line-up, every hitter has the mindset going in, 'I'm going to get a hit and get on base.' I don't think we have that complete mindset yet. I think we're getting there. We need to focus on hitting the ball and not so much on mechanics."
All four will be playing college softball. Graybill signed with the University of Louisville and Spencer will attend nearby Thomas More College. Haley Coffey will go to Taylor University near Fort Wayne (Indiana) and Dutcher will go to Denison University located east of Columbus (Ohio).
The season continues for Highlands on Friday. The Ladybirds face Notre Dame in Park Hills at 5 p.m.