It wasn’t long ago that Rowan County’s Amber Riddle terrorized the 16th Region with her power hitting.
When Ashland’s McKenzie Vanover steps to the plate and levels her bat, opposing fans wince with the same kind of respect paid to Kentucky’s 2009 Miss Softball.
Vanover has earned it, ascending the state’s all-time home run list until trailing only Riddle.
Earlier this spring, Vanover put 2013 Miss Softball Ashley Coppage of Harrison County in the rear-view mirror. The Ashland senior’s long ball total stands at 43 heading into her final regional tournament this week at Russell.
“I believe McKenzie Vanover could hit on any level of college softball,” said Ashland’s Dave Miller. Next season, coach and player will be making the transition to Kentucky Christian University.
“Mac has the quickest hands I’ve seen,” Miller said. “From the start of her swing to when she gets through the ball, it’s so fast. That’s where her power is from. Those hands provide a lot of bat speed.”
Boyd County coach Geoff Stewart sees similarities between the former and current 16th Region sluggers.
“McKenzie is like Amber because she can hit it out at any time,” Stewart said. “She’s a very good hitter with lots of power.”
Stewart speaks from experience. Vanover has burned Boyd County with her booming bat more times than he cares to remember.
“McKenzie deserves every accolade that comes her way,” Stewart said. ”I’m glad she’s going to be graduating. She’s always had power, but over the years she’s become a better hitter. She’s so, so strong. She can hit multiple pitches out of the park.”
Riddle’s state record of 55 homers appears safe, but Vanover’s focus remains fixed on a different number. She’s played on four consecutive region champion teams for the Kittens and wants to go out with No. 5.
“I think anybody would love to win the region every year they are in high school,” Vanover said. “As a team, we put actions to words. We work hard for the success we’ve had.”
Ashland, 28-5 and ranked 15th in the final state coaches’ poll, plays East Carter tonight in the opening round of the regional tournament. The Kittens will be trying to rebound from a 9-5 loss to Boyd County in the 64th District final.
“Maybe that’s what we needed,” Vanover said. “From this point, lose one game and you’re going home. We have to let that sink in and put a fire to us for region.”
Vanover, batting .471 with 13 homers, and junior teammate Megan Hensley continue to be on fire at the plate. Vanover has hit safely in 29 of 33 games, including the last 11, with Hensley providing season-long protection in the clean-up spot. Hensley’s batting average is a blistering .561 and she’s driven in 42 runs.
“She’s been killing the ball,” Vanover said. “Megan stepped up this season. She makes me a better hitter. About every time I get on, Megan hits me in. Or (Megan) Griffith hits me in.”
Vanover’s next run scored will be her 50th of the season. She hit a home run in consecutive games against West Carter, Fairview, Boyd County and Johnson Central and had another streak of three games with a homer.
“She’s patient in the box, just an all-around good hitter,” Boyd County pitcher Lora Thompson said. “You have to really work and hope for the best because she can hit the ball anywhere you throw it.”
Strictly a pull-hitter earlier in her career, Vanover now uses much more of the field and can punish different kinds of pitches in different locations.
“I feel like I’ve widened where I see the ball,” she said. “I would go to Championship Fastpitch and have my dad (Ashland assistant coach Steve Vanover) work on that with me.”
The corner infielder has found a nice groove at the plate in the last month.
“Mac’s really come on of late,” Miller said. “Her swing is peaking at the right time. I really like where she is right now ... very locked in. I think being a senior, she sees the light at the end of the tunnel and wants to make sure it ends like she wants it to.”
Vanover’s high school career began as a seventh-grader at Rose Hill Christian. That was also Riddle’s final season and their paths crossed in Boyd County’s annual invitational. Vanover pitched for the Lady Royals and served up one of Riddle’s 17 home runs in 2009.
“I’m pretty sure it touched the sky,” recalled Vanover, her eyes widening. “I don’t know if the ball ever came down.”
Vanover connected on her first two long balls that season in a doubleheader against Elliott County. The second was a grand slam — one of four in her career.
After totaling 13 home runs in her first three seasons at Ashland, Vanover launched 15 as a junior. The longest, coming at Henry Clay, traveled about 300 feet according to Miller.
Vanover went on to enjoy a huge postseason. She hit a pivotal home run against West Carter to keep the Kittens alive in the regional tournament and went 4-for-4 with two homers against Russell in the title game.
“She has stepped up in the big games so many times,” Miller said. “I think the bigger the game, the more responsibility Mac feels to carry the team. She’s a great leader and you won’t find a better kid. She’s a strong Christian and a wonderful teammate.”
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2671.