Ladybirds capture 9th Region title one day after Bluebirds
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. The Highlands softball (left) and baseball (right) teams will put 9th Region trophies in the case in the same season for the first time in school history this year.|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. The Highlands baseball and softball teams pose together after the Ladybirds captured the 9th Region championship Friday, 8-1 over Ryle. The Bluebirds beat Beechwood on Thursday in the 9th title game.|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior shortstop Haley Coffey goes to her knees in the dirt to make a play Thursday. Coffey won the 9th Region Tournament Most Valuable player honors.|
So when the Highlands Ladybirds softball team (24-10 overall) took the lead over the Ryle Lady Raiders (25-9) in the bottom of the fifth with a seven-run explosion, Highlands made sure it stood up on the way to an 8-1 9th Region championship victory. That completed an 18-0 run against the region in both the regular season and postseason.
It also marked the program's second region championship in the last three seasons along and the first time both the Highlands softball and baseball teams won region championships in the same year in school history. The Bluebirds beat Beechwood in the baseball 9th title game Thursday. Highlands takes on 10th Region champion George Rogers Clark (19-14) on Thursday at 6 p.m. at Jack C. Fisher Park in Owensboro.
This marked the first time since 2007 where one school won both the 9th Region baseball and softball crowns in the same season when Ryle did it. The Lady Raiders finished state runner-up that year after becoming the lone 9th Region state champion in 2006.
Highlands hoped to repeat as 9th Region champions last year. But Notre Dame rallied late for a 5-4 victory.
"(That loss) drove us to get back into this championship, win it this time and get back down to state and do some damage," said Rob Coffey, Highlands Head Coach. "It drove us to get back here, execute, focus, keep that focus and pull off a victory. We lost focus last year."
The Ladybirds outhit the Lady Raiders, 9-4 and committed no errors to five for Ryle. Highlands did not commit an error in three 9th Region Tournament games.
"Experience helps a lot," said Rachel Gabbard, Highlands freshman second baseman. "When we have many four-year and five-year starters and we put in the work in the offseason, it helps a lot. We make the big plays in big games and that's what helps us win ballgames."
Highlands senior pitcher Bailey Spencer held Ryle down until the offense came through. That landed her a spot on the all-tournament team with Shelby Graybill. She struck out four and walked two.
"It is a little nerve-racking when you're out there and you don't have runs on the board," Spencer said. "Once the runs broke out, it took so much pressure off me. The team stepped up and did amazing. The scoreboard shows it."
Ryle lead-off hitter Maclai Branson reached third in the first inning, but Spencer struck out Morgan Smith to end the inning. Spencer also left runners at the corners in the third after striking out Smith. Branson led Ryle with two singles.
Offensively, Gabbard led the way for Highlands with three singles and a run batted in. Tournament Most Valuable Player Haley Coffey and Brennah Dutcher had two hits each. Dutcher had three runs batted in and scored once. Haley Coffey scored once.
Highlands grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first inning. Haley Coffey reached on a hard hit to Ryle third baseman Hannah Bishop ruled an error before taking second when Morgan Coffey faked a bunt and slapped an infield single. Ryle pitcher Kennady Carson then hit Graybill with a pitch to load the bases for Dutcher with none out.
But Dutcher hit a foul pop to the third base side. Bishop tried to get to it but it hit the ground. However, the third base umpire called Haley Coffey out at third for interfering with Bishop retreating to third.
After Morgan Coffey and Graybill moved up on a wild pitch, Dutcher grounded to Bishop. Ryle tagged out Morgan Coffey going home on the fielder's choice. But Graybill scored after Gabbard singled and Carson hit Josie Daley with a pitch with the bases loaded.
Ryle came back to tie the game in the third. With one out, Madeline Morgan walked, took second on a wild pitch, third on a Branson single and scored when MacKenzie Irons grounded out. Haley Coffey made a great one-handed play after the ball deflected off Spencer. Smith's second strikeout came after Highlands walked McKenzi Dickerson.
Carson did not pitch against Highlands in both regular season games. The Ladybirds beat the Lady Raiders, 7-1 on April 2 in the Uncle Pete Noll Classic and 8-3 on May 14 at home.
"We did see (Carson) last year, but nothing really different," Coach Coffey said. "I think early on, we started and had the call that took us out of that first inning. Then we went on a little lull there. She got in her groove there. We had tight hands because we didn't execute in that first inning. They wouldn't be in the finals if it weren't for her. We felt like we could hit here. We were worried about them. We knew they could do it to us and that's what we didn't want to see."
In the crucial fifth inning, the top three Highlands hitters again loaded the bases with no out. Haley Coffey singled and Morgan Coffey laid down a bunt. However, all hands were safe on a mishandled throw and Haley Coffey moved to third. Mogan Coffey then stole second and Ryle intentionally walked Graybill to load the bases.
Dutcher came through this time. She fouled off several 2-2 pitches before depositing the ball in the gap in right center field to score both Coffey sisters and Graybill. Dutcher wound up at third on an errant Ryle throw before scoring on a Gabbard single to put Highlands up 5-1.
"Outside pitches are my worst enemy. I've never liked them," Dutcher said. "I pull everything. We have a short swing and we choke up on the bats when we have two strikes to get the bat on the ball. That's what we needed. Luckily, it went in the gap between center and right. I was really happy about that."
Daley then reached on a Bishop error and Gabbard advanced to second. Zoie Barth then landed a bunt that Ryle threw away allowing Gabbard and pinch-runner Ella Grimm to score. Barth ended up at third and scored when Abby Rust grounded out to first.
The Ladybirds retired the Lady Raiders in order in the sixth and seventh innings. Morgan grounded out to Haley Coffey at short to finish the game.
Highlands went 1-2 in the state tournament two years ago. The Ladybirds opened with a 4-1 win over Estill County, but lost to Owensboro Apollo, 12-2 and Ashland Blazer, 12-0 both in five innings the next day.
Softball Box Score:
Ryle (25-9) 001 000 0 - 1 4 5
Highlands (22-10) 100 070 X - 8 9 0
Highlands pitching line:
Bailey Spencer, Complete game, four strikeouts, four hits, two walks, one earned run.
Highlands leading hitters:
Rachel Gabbard, 3-for-4, one run batted in.
Haley Coffey, 2-for-3, one run scored.
Brennah Dutcher, 2-for-4, double, three RBI, one run scored.
9th Region Softball Tournament Schedule:
Monday, May 30:
Quarterfinals at Vets Field, Newport:
Boone County 3, Dixie Heights 0
Highlands 9, Covington Holy Cross 0
Ryle 3, Newport Central Catholic 0
Notre Dame 6, St. Henry 3
Tuesday, May 31:
Semifinals at Vets Field, Newport:
Highlands 9, Boone County 4
Ryle 5, Notre Dame 2
Friday, June 3:
Championship at Vets Field, Newport:
Highlands 8, Ryle 1