Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

April 3, 2014

Closing gap on Russell?

Potential high for tight race

Zack Klemme
The Independent

ASHLAND — Has the 63rd District softball championship game ended yet?

The marathon of a title matchup between Greenup County and Russell took 13 innings to produce a winner in 2013. The Lady Devils survived a tug-of-war that featured just two pitchers for the entirety.

Ten months later, Lady Musketeers coach Eric Keeton called it one of the best games in which he’s ever been involved, coaching or playing.

Keeton’s club has come up excruciatingly short against Russell in each of the previous three title bouts — 2-0 in 2011, 5-4 in eight innings in 2012, and 3-2 in 13 frames last May.

All of the district’s coaches strongly agree that the 63rd has been the best group of teams, top to bottom, in the 16th Region in recent years.

The district’s prognosis for 2014 appears to paint a similar picture.

Russell still clings to ownership of the district, having claimed six straight crowns. New (and former) coach Carol Stevens hopes to keep the Lady Devils atop the mountain.

Stevens reassumes the position she held from 1995 to 2005, a period that included eight region championships and one fourth-place state tournament finish (1997).

Ron Osborn stepped down after eight years as the skipper for family reasons.

Allan Thompson, Stevens’s brother who holds an administrative position at the high school, is assisting Stevens. Thompson started Russell’s slow-pitch softball program in 1989.

The Lady Devils are off to a fine start this season at 6-1.

The leadership from seniors Mallory Powell and Hannah Carter has permeated throughout the dugout so far.

“I couldn’t ask for two better leaders,” Stevens said. “They’re just phenomenal when it comes to knowledge of the game. It makes the transition back into head coaching a lot easier.”

Powell is coming off a stellar junior campaign, in which she tallied 151 strikeouts in 151 innings. She no-hit Ashland during the regular season and helped lead the Lady Devils to the region finals, where they fell to the Kittens.

While still young overall, the Lady Devils are “versatile at several positions,” Stevens said.

Carter, a switch-hitting infielder, is capable of playing most positions. Because of her communication skills, Carter could see plenty of time at shortstop, according to Stevens.

Freshman Sara Hieneman and sophomore Cassie Fultz will man the right side of the infield. Freshman Annalee Miller could round out the infield at third base, although Stevens is still experimenting with players in different spots.

Abby Gambill, a utility player, is another of the three seniors.

Emma Ison takes over behind the plate, supplanting longtime starter Arden Gross, who graduated.

“Emma’s filling some big shoes,” Stevens said. “But she gives us 300 percent in practice.”

Paige Howard gives Greenup County stability at catcher. The senior is one of seven returning starters for the Lady Musketeers.

Keeton called Howard the leader of the group.

Primarily throwing to her from the circle is junior Brooke Johnson.

“We have one of the better pitchers in the region,” Keeton said. “She mixes it up, and is very good at hitting spots. She’s pitched some big games in the past ...

“... And normally our defense is sure-handed,” added the coach. “We should be a very tough out come postseason.”

Greenup County (4-4) began the year with a 7-3 defeat of defending region champion Ashland. The Kittens ended the Lady Musketeers’ season in the region semifinals last year.

Junior shortstop Madi Greene homered against the Kittens and later against East Carter.

“Madi’s hit the ball really well early on,” Keeton said of the third-year starter. “Offensively, that’s a really good sign.”

Senior Andrea Dean is the “anchor of the outfield,” Keeton said, in center.

Jordan Moore returns after missing most of last season with ankle injuries. The junior left fielder hit .373 in 2012. Sam Mitchell, also a junior, has held down third base for the last few years.

With 18 victories, Raceland had the most wins of any team to miss the region tournament last season. Greenup County ousted the Lady Rams 6-2 in the district’s first round.

Third-year coach Shawn Johnson deems goals of winning the 16th Region All “A” Classic and the district tournament reachable.

“We must challenge ourselves to become a better player each time we step on the field,” Johnson wrote in an email.

Like Greenup County and Russell, Raceland also has a reliable arm in the circle. Junior Kelsey Diller has displayed her dependability throughout the last couple of seasons.

Sophomore Savannah Mackie comes back as the first baseman. She hit .359 with four home runs as a ninth-grader.

Madison Johnson, an eighth-grader, posted the best fielding percentage on the team a year ago at second base.

Junior Taylor Podunavac returns as the center fielder.

Although without a single senior, the Lady Rams are hoping for success, and they started off with a string of nice wins. They were 4-0 until running up against some quality competition in Myrtle Beach, S.C., this week.

Lewis County managed just six wins in coach Kayla Lykins’s first season, but she is optimistic.

“We start three to four middle school girls on any given night so we are still very young,” Lykins said. “I anticipate more improvement throughout the course of the season.”

Junior Kelsey Rizzo will handle the bulk of the pitching duties for the Lady Lions (3-5).

Lykins expects freshman catcher Haylee Stamm and eighth-grade infielder/pitcher Jalyssa Cortez to produce regularly, despite their youth.

Makayla Liles is the team’s leader. The senior plays both shortstop and center field.

AARON SNYDER can be reached at asnyder@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2664.