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Thursday, March 14, 2019

2019 Highlands Softball Preview

Bluebirds Seek Next Step Back to State Tournament

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands freshman shortstop Anna Greenwell returns for her third season on varsity.
For three straight years between 2014 and 2016, the Highlands Bluebirds softball team found itself in the 9th Region championship game winning it twice before going 1-2 in the double-elimination state tournament.

Following a down year in 2017, Highlands drove back to the region championship last year. But the Bluebirds managed just two hits off Hannah Bishop in a 4-0 defeat to the Ryle Lady Raiders. Ryle wound up going 0-for-2 in the state tournament.

Highlands graduated nine seniors from that team including three starters in Josie Daley, Liz Mairose and Brooke Dill. Rebecca Breen, Maleah Abner, Alyssa Dixon, Ella Griewe, Ella Grimm and Baylie Ormes also graduated and two-year freshman starting third baseman Addie Mack transferred to Notre Dame.

But seventh-year Head Coach Rob Coffey welcomes back a lot of experience and young talent from the 20-11 36th District championship squad. The hope is to make it back to that game and advance back to the state tournament, which will go to a single-elimination format this spring. Coffey had a vision for not just catching Ryle but the best in the Commonwealth of Kentucky when he took the job in the fall of 2012.

"We are elated on where we are," Coffey said. "We feel we have a system now that we feel it's the next person. We're preparing them ahead of time if somebody goes down, we lose somebody or somebody graduates, we are back filling that spot seamlessly anymore. That's a great feeling. The other thing it does is it challenges our girls every day in practice. It's really nice to have."

Coffey cited the outfield as an example. He said there are five outfielders who could start for about any team in the region. They constantly hustle knowing it will be a battle to start. Senior Morgan Coffey and juniors Abby Rust and Piper Macke return after starting in the outfield last year. Senior Michaela Brown along with junior Kendall Murray, sophomores Caroline Class, Paige Ossege and eighth grader Kennedy Baioni could play in the outfield. Macke could also play second base and Baioni pitched some last year.

"We're always going to try 100 percent to get to every ball at all times," Brown said. "Coach Coffey tries to make plays that don't happen much (in practice). He'll hit the ball in the hole or over our heads, which will help us more as we get into the season."

Senior Rachel Gabbard returns for her sixth season as a starter. She started at first base last year. Gabbard had one of the hits in the region championship against Bishop.

"We've really just been focusing on our approach at the plate," Gabbard said. "We want to focus on knowing what pitch is coming and knowing where to stand in the box, where to hold our hands and just having the confident mentality knowing you can hit any pitcher in the region and state. Having that confidence will allow us to get more hits and score more runs each game."

Gabbard is one of three seniors along with Morgan Coffey and Brown. Morgan Coffey also played a key role on the region championship teams.

"(The seniors) have a good situation going on," Morgan Coffey said. "Rachel puts them in order and Michaela and I make it enjoyable for (the teammates). We've all been playing together for a long time so we're comfortable with each other. All the younger girls look up to us. We're making sure everyone is on the same level so we can get to the top."

Two other starting infielders return in freshman Anna Greenwell at shortstop and junior Taylar Lorenzen at second base. Juniors Kiergan Bailey and Britney Johnson could battle for time at catcher and second base and junior Lydia Grimm could also play an infield spot.

Freshman pitcher Gracie Schlosser returns after starting the majority of the games the previous two seasons. But she may be out until May. Baioni along with freshman Kim Ossege, eighth grader Carley Cramer and seventh grader Bailey Markus could handle the pitching load until that time. Baioni and Schlosser could also play first base. Ossege and Markus could also play a spot in the infield with Cramer playing at third when not pitching.

A couple others could also battle for playing time. Freshman Eleanor Todd could play at first base and eighth grader Michelle Barth could play catcher or first base.

Highlands came into practice in February working on game situations. They go over fundamentals in the fall. That came in handy in the 2-1 10-inning victory over Boone County in the region quarterfinals.

"We feel blessed with the coaching staff that we have because they're very experienced," Coach Coffey said. "We have eight full-time coaches that help us, which is absolute luxury. It does help us with different things. We work on advanced scenarios. We have 25-35 kids show up in the fall. Our philosophy is to put them through as much as we can so game situations are easy. We don't want you thinking in a game."

One area that needs improvement is constant focus throughout games. In the 36th District championship game, Dayton put together a rally in the top of the seventh inning coming within three runs in a 10-7 Highlands win. Coach Coffey has said coaching girls is completely different than coaching boys.

"You don't know what you're going to get from day to day. One day, she's a superstar. The next day she's in la la land and we tease them about it so it's not a secret," Coach Coffey said. "Teen-age girls have a lot going through their heads. They react differently. They're a little more sensitive. There are different things that can happen in their life that are different than boys. They take a different approach to competitiveness. We preach (focus). We've lost games because of a lack of focus in the past. You typically get a feel for who you have to stay on. We're pretty boisterous about making sure every time they get out there, you're stepping into your spots. You're refocusing and doing all that you're supposed to do. But you still lose it every once in while and you have to chalk it up to it's high school girls. You deal with it, move on and hope it doesn't hurt you big in the long run."

One pre-season poll has Ryle winning the region. But Coach Coffey said Highlands is right there along with teams like Notre Dame, Boone County and Dixie Heights. The Bluebirds play a tough schedule again this year.

"It's well-balanced," Coach Coffey said of the region. "I tell our kids we might be .500 going into districts, but we'll be prepared to face whatever we're going to see. We don't shy away. The first thing I do when I call tournament is see who's in it. When they tell me who it is, I tell them who I want to play. There's no good reason to travel if you're not going to play the best."

Highlands opens the season at Newport on March 26. Game time is 5 p.m.

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