Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local Sports

June 4, 2014

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Kittens embrace major challenge

ASHLAND — Only one team in Owensboro this week owns the distinction of appearing in the Worth/KHSAA Softball State Tournament every year since 2009.

Ashland’s Kittens are counting on that experience, plus the double-edged skills of junior Megan Hensley, to help carry them at Jack C. Fisher Park.

Dave Miller, who is in his ninth and final season as Ashland’s coach, said the program has earned respect across Kentucky with Top 25 rankings and return trips to Owensboro year after year.

“We’re the only one that will be down there for the sixth year in a row,” Miller said. “It speaks volumes to what we’ve been able to build here. The kids met our expectations. I would be lying if I didn’t say I was proud. Softball’s a year-round thing with our girls, whether it’s playing summer ball, conditioning or whatever we do. It (title streak) means a lot to me, and it’s something that will be hard to equal.”

Ashland’s feat matched Russell’s run of 16th Region fastpitch championships from 2001-06.

The Kittens have also tasted success at the double-elimination State Tournament, winning two games each in 2010, ‘11 and ‘13 to come away with Elite Eight status.

Miller and his players want to make this their best finish yet, but they face a major hurdle in the first round today at 5 p.m. (central). McCracken County grabbed the No. 1 ranking in the first regular-season state coaches poll and never relinquished it.

The first-year school in Paducah is a consolidation of Lone Oak, Reidland and Heath — all rich in softball tradition. McCracken County coach Tony Hayden guided Reidland to the last of its three state championships in 2010.

“You feel like with the merger of those three softball programs, all three high-profile in their own right, our task is a big one,” Miller said. “They have been ranked No. 1 in the state all season for a reason. No question, they are good. I think we are, too. If Megan’s not the best pitcher in the tournament, she will be No. 2.”

The Kittens, ranked 15th in the final poll, have won 31 of 36 games against likely their most demanding schedule. Late in the season, Ashland went to Louisville and beat Central Hardin and Bullitt East, both then ranked in the top five, on the same day. A month earlier, Central Hardin handed McCracken County one of its only two defeats in Kentucky.

“I think we’ll do really good (at State),” said McKenzie Vanover, the Kittens’ power-hitting first baseman. “We’ve faced some of the toughest competition already. We already know what’s coming for us.”

The draw did Ashland no favor, however. McCracken County (35-5) has been on a roll most of the season, outscoring opponents 333-47. In mid-March, the Lady Mustangs ripped through a strong field at the Big M Chevrolet Tournament in Elizabethtown, including an 8-0 win over Greenwood, last year’s 44-0 state champs.   

Hayden called it a “dream to be the first one to have all that talent” after the consolidation. Twenty-four starters returned from the three former teams.

Said Miller: “We’re not as deep, but softball does not require that all the time. In a one-game setting, you never know what can happen. We look forward to the challenge.”

Especially if Hensley, one of the state’s best in the circle, can neutralize a high-scoring Lady Mustangs’ attack. Last year’s State Tournament strikeout leader is a 28-game winner this spring including a fistful of no-hitters.

“Our goal this year at State is to win it,” Hensley said. “Usually, it’s a lot about being there and trying to make some noise. We want to be in the championship game. I think we can do it. We’ve definitely worked hard for it.”

Hensley sports an 0.63 earned run average with 369 Ks in 200 2/3 innings.

“I think she’s the real deal,” Hayden said of the University of Louisville commit. “We’re not overlooking Ashland. We know we’ve got out hands full. We talked amongst ourselves as a team and we know they’ve got a pitcher that can shut you down.”

That’s only happened one time to the Lady Mustangs all season. Metropolis, from Massac County, Ill., blanked McCracken 2-0 on May 13 in Paducah.

“Their pitcher threw about 45 miles an hour, just junk,” Hayden said. “We didn’t adjust. We hit a lot of pop-ups.”

The Lady Mustangs enter the State Tournament with a .386 team batting average after crushing Calloway County, Ballard Memorial and Graves County by a combined 33-1 in the First Region Tournament.

Junior catcher Rachel Ridolfi hit a home run as part of her 3-for-3 day in the regional final. Jenny Chapman, who leads a deep McCracken County pitching staff, threw a one-hitter with 11 strikeouts and faced only two batters over the minimum.

“She doesn’t throw especially hard, but moves the ball in all directions,” Miller said. “We both have good offenses, good pitching. It seems to me that it could be one of the best games in the whole tournament.”

Ashland faced a tough road in the 16th Region Tournament, but responded by beating East Carter (2-0), Russell (10-0) and archrival Boyd County (7-2). Outstanding Pitcher and Player awards went to Hensley and senior outfielder Sydney Whitt, who homered in each of the last two games.

Her second-inning solo shot against Boyd County gave the Kittens a 4-0 lead.

“It definitely got us up in the dugout,” Hensley said. “Coming off knee surgery (last season), Sydney improved through the season and carried us through the regional tournament.”

Miller played it safe with Whitt during the regular season, especially on the bases, before turning her loose at tournament time. Whitt displayed her combination of speed and power to spark the Kittens when they needed her most.

“You couldn’t have scripted it any better for her,” Miller said after the regional final. “Now that Sydney has that muscle mass back, she’s getting more confident about things. What a catalyst. She gives you every single thing she can possibly give you.”

Whitt and sophomore second baseman Katie Baldock (.339 average) typically are table-setters for the Kittens’ dynamic duo. Vanover has 13 homers to go with a .451 batting average and team-high 51 runs, while Hensley’s bat continues to sing to the tune of a .561 average, including 24 extra-base hits and 42 RBIs.

Vanover couldn’t be happier about another closing out her Ashland career in another State Tournament. She’s been a part of five regional championship teams.

“Every year they get better,” Vanover said after Thursday’s victory in Flatwoods.

Junior shortstop Megan Griffith, fifth in the lineup, is hitting at a .346 clip. Outfielders Hayley Kilburn and Jordan Meade, third baseman Carly Conley and catcher Sidney Campbell have combined to drive in 65 runs while providing timely hits.       

“I’m so proud to be their coach,” Miller said. “All the work they’ve put in and all they’ve accomplished, it’s awesome. And we’ve got some more to go.”

Other upper-bracket matchups include Greenwood (33-5-1) vs. Male (28-10-1), Madisonville-North Hopkins 30-4) vs. Mercy (26-7-1), and Johnson Central (25-8) vs. Anderson County (27-8).

Madisonville-North Hopkins was the other Kentucky team to defeat McCracken County during the regular season.

“The top bracket is full of really good first-round games,” Hayden said.

ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at rstanley@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2671.

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