A man nicknamed “W” resided in the White House the last time Ashland lost a 16th Region Tournament softball game.
It’s been all W’s for the Kittens since 2009, when their roll of four straight regional titles began, but eighth-year coach Dave Miller is wary of calling his bunch the top dogs.
First round pairings were unveiled during Friday’s tournament draw at the Ashland Blazer High School library. Play will begin Monday and wrap up on Wednesday. All games will be held at East Carter Middle School.
Russell and Menifee County will kick off the tournament on Monday at noon. Following that matchup will be East Carter-Boyd County at 2 p.m., Rowan County-Greenup County at 4 and Ashland-West Carter at 6.
The semifinal round begins on Tuesday at 6 p.m. The championship game is slated for Wednesday at 7 p.m.
“I still haven’t accepted that we could possibly be a favorite in this tournament,” Miller said. “We’re starting an eighth-grader, three ninth-graders and I’ve lost one of the best outfielders in the state of Kentucky.”
Miller was referring to Sydney Whitt, a junior who underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL and a damaged meniscus on Friday morning.
Ashland (22-9) suffered just two losses inside the region this season — both came against Russell. Megan Hensley and her 300-plus strikeouts have led the way in the circle while McKenzie Vanover has racked up 12 home runs.
Rowan County’s Larry Slone — the last coach to topple Miller’s Kittens in the tourney — isn’t buying what Miller is selling just yet. However, the longest-tenured coach in the region is keeping an open mind with the deep talent in this year’s field.
“I think it has to go through Ashland because they are the defending champions, but there are probably five or six teams that, if they happen to get rolling, could make things happen and win it,” Slone said.
The Lady Vikings (22-15) are coming off a 1-0 victory over Menifee County in the 61st District Tournament.
Greenup County (18-17), which took Russell to 13 innings before falling short in the 63rd District, will offer a mighty task, said Slone.
“We played them in a scrimmage, and I was very impressed,” Slone said. “They’re very solid.”
Boyd County coach Geoff Stewart, who has led the Lady Lions to three consecutive runner-up finishes, said that the Rowan County-Greenup County matchup might just be the best on opening day.
“It could be a dandy,” he said.
Stewart’s attention, though, drew toward his opponent as he glanced at the bracket. East Carter and Boyd County both enter the tournament with 24-11 records. The Lady Lions won the regular season matchup, 7-2, on April 11.
“They worry me because they play some small ball, their pitcher (Morgan Jacobs) has gotten a lot better over the year — she hits her spots well, and she’s got a lot more speed than last year — and (Lady Raiders coach Derek Calhoun) has changed a lot of his starters,” Stewart said. “They’re pretty talented.”
Taylor Wheeler, at second base, and Emily Stewart, at catcher and sometimes shortstop, anchor a defense that Stewart believes is one of his team’s strongest assets. Lora Thompson, one of the Lady Lions’ four pitchers, has also been a bright spot lately.
Both Miller and Stewart placed Russell (15-14) atop their most dangerous list.
“Russell scares me,” said Stewart, who could possibly face the Lady Devils in the semifinals.
“They’re world beaters when they play us,” Miller added. “You can’t look at their record.”
Lady Devils pitcher Mallory Powell tossed a no-hitter against Ashland earlier this season. She and Menifee County hurler Erika Brewer figure to produce a good show from the circle. The Lady Cats are 13-18.
West Carter (12-13) joins Menifee County as the only two teams with a losing record, but the Lady Comets have a solid pitcher in Leatha Reynolds.
Ashland won both regular season meetings, 10-0 and 17-1.
If three more W’s are in the works for Ashland, it’ll have to accomplish the feat with just three seniors a year after four super seniors — Emily Preece, Kelsee Hammonds, Jordan Hensley and Kat Jackson — graduated.
“Last year the pressure was unbelievable,” Miller said. “This year I don’t feel it. Our girls certainly don’t feel it. They just go play. So, I think it’s going to help. But, the only thing is, I also have first-timers here, I don’t have seasoned kids.”
AARON SNYDER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2664.