Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Headed to Owensboro for business

Highlands softball hopes for better results in second trip to state

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. The Highlands Ladybirds softball team members celebrated after winning their second 9th Region title in three years. Highlands opens the state tournament at Owensboro on Thursday at 6 p.m. against George Rogers Clark.
The hopes are for a deeper run the second time around.

The 9th Region champion Highlands Ladybirds softball team (24-10 overall) advanced to its first-ever state tournament at Owensboro's Jack C. Fisher Park two years ago. Highlands did pull off a 4-1 win over Estill County on the first day for its first-ever state tournament victory in the record 27-win campaign.

But things changed on the second day in five-inning 12-2 and 12-0 losses to Owensboro Apollo and Ashland Blazer respectively in the double-elimination tournament. But Highlands will go down there knowing what to expect in terms of the diamond with temporary fences and the tournament schedule this time.

The first priority is taking care of 10th Region champion George Rogers Clark (19-14) at 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The Lady Cardinals enter the tournament with the fewest wins among the region champions. The park has four recreation softball fields that allows for four games at a time and temporary fences are installed in the outfields.

If Highlands wins, the Ladybirds will play at 10 a.m. Friday and Noon if they lose against either 5th Region winner Central Hardin (31-8) or 3rd Region winner Daviess County (32-7). A loss on Thursday would mean Highlands would need to win four games Friday to make it to the semifinals on Saturday.

"At this level, if you're the last 16 to be playing, you take them all serious," said Rob Coffey, Highlands Head Coach. "They beat Harrison (County), 6-0 (in the 10th Region title game). They obviously are pretty darn good so we're going to take it one game at a time, one inning at a time and one out at a time."

Highlands will be led by the four seniors in shortstop Haley Coffey, pitcher Bailey Spencer, University of Louisville signee Shelby Graybill and first baseman Brennah Dutcher. Haley Coffey leads off and is batting .393 on the season going 35-for-89 with 16 runs batted in, nine doubles, a triple, two home runs and 39 runs scored to go with 16 stolen bases and 11 walks.

"The biggest thing is getting our intensity up like we had it for region," Haley Coffey said. "Once we won region, I feel like once we won region, we were like, 'Phew, we won region. Alright, we're good. Now state.' It kind of surprised us how good the teams were. I think our second time down there, we're used to everything. We know what's coming. We need to bring the same intensity and know that it's just as big or bigger of a game the first round of state as it is the finals of region." 

Graybill and Dutcher have produced well at third and fourth in the order respectively. Graybill bats .473 going 43-for-91 with 32 RBI, 33 runs scored, 15 doubles, nine home runs and nine walks. Dutcher and others have made teams pay when they've walked Graybill. Dutcher is batting .530 going 53-for-100 with 35 RBI, 26 runs scored, 17 doubles, three triples, three home runs, four walks and seven stolen bases.

Other players like sophomore catcher Josie Daley, freshman second baseman Rachel Gabbard, sophomore center fielder Brooke Dill, freshman Morgan Coffey and eighth grader Abby Rust have come up with huge hits throughout the season as well. Rust and Dill are second on the team with eight stolen bases and Gabbard is fourth with doubles. Highlands is batting .345 (302-of-875) as a team with 229 runs scored, 192 RBI, 65 doubles, seven triples, 14 home runs, 75 walks, 131 strikeouts and 61 stolen bases.

Spencer has been a force on the mound for all four years of high school. She owns a 22-8 record with a 2.4 earned-run average in 178 innings pitched to go with 149 strikeouts, just 28 walks, 86 runs including 61 earned.

The Highlands defense did not make any errors in the region tournament. The Ladybirds know they need to continue to play that stellar defense against deep teams.

GRC won the 10th despite being picked third in the 40th District and fifth in the region. The Lady Cardinals have seven seniors. Senior lead-off third baseman Megan Terrell leads the team batting .398 (35-of-88) with 20 runs scored, 25 RBI, 12 doubles, a triple, two home runs, nine walks and three stolen bases.

The Lady Cardinals have batted .307 (263-of-857) as a team with 199 runs scored to go with 144 runs batted in a 53 doubles. GRC has nine triples, five home runs, 91 walks and 30 stolen bases on the season to go with 130 strikeouts.

Freshman pitcher Courtney Miles has stepped in nicely. Miles (18-11) has a 2.46 earned-run average on the season in 165 innings. She's struck out 155 on the year to go with 33 walks, 89 runs including 58 earned.

Highlands finished 18-0 against the 9th Region this season, 3-0 against the 10th Region after opening the season with a 12-0 win over Simon Kenton. But Highlands finished just 1-9 against other Kentucky teams. The one win came against previous state champion and 4th Region runner-up Greenwood.

That includes going 0-3 against other teams in the state tournament. Highlands lost to 8th Region champion Anderson County at Elizabethtown on March 18 and twice to 12th Region champion East Jessamine.

"With the anticipation of going back to state, we did a lot of traveling this year," Coach Coffey said. "Once we get there, it's all business. Against those teams downstate, we struggled to put the bat on the ball. Some of the girls play travel ball so they're used to being in hotels. We're hoping that strategy pays off on the second day."

The tournament continues in Owensboro on Friday and Saturday. Only four teams will remain Saturday in the semifinals before two battle for the state championship.

Tournament Notes:

Family connections come with both the Highlands baseball and softball teams winning the region in the same season for the first time in school history. Rust's older brother Kyle, a junior, starts at catcher for the Bluebirds. Their father Jeff is an assistant coach on the baseball team.

"My Dad actually coached me when I was little in baseball," Abby Rust said. "I've grown up with my brother and Dad helping me fix stuff so it's kind of cool because we share a connection. You don't really hear a brother, a daughter and a brother and sister then a coach's two kids all won the region."

Junior Taylor Baioni's father Jeremy is the head coach of the Bluebirds. Jeremy Baioni texted Taylor Baioni on Thursday saying he wanted to see twin trophies. Both teams received their wishes.

"We all worked really hard to both win the region and it was exciting for us both to win it," Taylor Baioni said. "As a family, we know how hard he works as a coach to prepare his team for the region so to see him win it was amazing. Not many people thought it was going to happen, but then he proved everybody wrong."

Highlands is one of five schools to win the region in both baseball and softball this season. The other three are McCracken County of the 1st Region, Scott County from the 11th, North Laurel from the 13th and Johnson Central from the 15th.

McCracken County (36-2) won its first state softball championship last year. The Lady Mustangs return as favorites along with 2014 state champion Scott County (31-2).

Ryle won the 9th Region's lone state championship in 2006. The Lady Raiders finished state runner-up the following season.

2016 State Softball Schedule (Double Elimination):
Thursday, June 9:
6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time:
(2) Madisonville-North Hopkins (33-3 overall) vs. (15) Johnson Central (26-14)
(12) East Jessamine (36-4) vs. (16) East Carter (34-0)
(9) Highlands (24-10) vs. (10) George Rogers Clark (19-14)
(5) Central Hardin (31-8) vs. (3) Daviess County (32-7)
8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time:
(13) North Laurel (23-12) vs. (14) Estill County (22-11)
(7) Louisville Male (29-8) vs. (1) McCracken County (36-2)
(6) Louisville Holy Cross (28-10-1) vs. (8) Anderson County (26-9)
(4) South Warren (25-13) vs. (11) Scott County (31-2)


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