With four consecutive State Tournament appearances and frequent Top 20 rankings, Ashland softball has set the bar as high as one of junior McKenzie Vanover's home run blasts.
Coach Dave Miller, the architect behind the program's success, is understandably proud of those accomplishments.
“Four straight regions. Look across the board in sports, you don't see that very often,” Miller said. “At the State Tournament, Owensboro Catholic was the only one we could come up with that we had seen down there all four years. And they are probably the premier program in the state, year in and year out.”
This spring, the challenge is greater than ever for a young Kittens squad after graduating five cornerstone players in the past two years, including two-time area Co-Player of the Year Kelsee Hammonds and three All-Area teammates in 2012.
Ashland had a rocky start in its home opener Saturday, dropping a doubleheader to Lawrence County.
“You don't lose the type players we did the last few years and not feel it at some point,” said a disappointed Miller afterward. “We will be OK. We know what we have to do. The season is not a sprint, it's a marathon.”
Rival Boyd County, region runner-up the past three seasons, is eager to replace Ashland atop the 64th District and 16th Region with a veteran team led by standouts Emily Stewart and Taylor Wheeler.
The Lady Lions are ranked 22nd in the Kentucky Softball Coaches Association's preseason Top 25, with Ashland coming in at No. 28.
Last year, Boyd County ended the Kittens' run of district titles as Wheeler walloped a two-run homer to put her team over the top.
Ashland won the rematch in the region finals 5-2.
“Our district has been the class of the region for several years,” Miller said. “Ashland-Boyd County is a great rivalry because both teams are good. Because we have dominated it does not diminish that the rivalry is there. Our girls get so jacked. That's the game they care about. We can go play a high-ranked team, but the girls will be more emotional about the Boyd County game.”
Although the Kittens lost major firepower from last year's 25-6 team, they do return five starters.
Power-hitting Vanover anchors the lineup, while Ashland will look to sophomore pitcher Megan Hensley to keep opposing lineups in check.
As a freshman, Hensley went 11-3 in the circle and averaged more than a strikeout per inning while sharing pitching duties with Hammonds. Hensley threw a three-hitter in the Kittens' first-round State Tournament loss to 38-game winner North Laurel.
“Megan had a great year, even with a wrist injury at the middle of the season that set her back,” Miller said. “Sydney Whitt will also pitch for us. They both had great winters.”
Miller views Hensley's pitching as a major strength.
“That's where it starts with everybody,” he said. “We are used to being dominant there. I don't think that's going to change this year. As long as Megan stays healthy and throws the ball the way she can and does, we should be right there. Not to put a lot of pressure on the kid, but I think our success rests a lot on how the pitching goes.”
The Kittens will be counting on that, especially while some of their young hitters develop.
“I think our pitching is going to keep us in any game we play,” Miller said. “We might not average 9 or 10 runs (like last year), but we just have to score one more than the opponent.”
The offense returns some pop, especially with Vanover batting cleanup spot and Whitt leadoff. Both players homered in both games of Saturday's doubleheader.
Miller regards Vanover as the most prolific hitter in the region. A third-year starter, Vanover batted in the .480s last season and also led the team with 16 doubles and five homers.
“She just pounds the ball,” Miller said.
Whitt showed her combination of speed and power on opening day. Along with her two home runs, she stole two bases and had a bunt single.
“Sydney is probably the quickest kid in the region,” Miller said.
Hensley, Katie Caron and Megan Griffith each posted batting averages in the .350 range a year ago.
“I thought Katie had a breakout year,” Miller said. “She's always been solid defensively. I'm not sure she made an error the whole season.”
The Kittens will be looking for help from such young players as Mattie Shivel, Katie Baldock, Jordan Meade, Haley Kilburn, Carly Conley and Sydney Campbell.
The only seniors are Caron, Sydney Cullop and Cory Nichols. Cullop helped Ashland win back-to-back region basketball championships and decided to join the softball team in her final season.
“She played softball up until the eighth or ninth grade, so she already knows the game,” Miller said. “Sydney is a great kid with very good athletic ability, and she knows what it takes to win.”
Ashland is accustomed to being No. 1 in the preseason poll of region coaches, but that spot belongs to Boyd County this time.
“I'm glad,” Lady Lions coach Geoff Stewart said. “I don't mind having the target on our back because I feel we have the players to handle the pressure. A lot of them are 3- and 4-year starters.”
Coaches voted senior Emily Stewart the region's top player, with Wheeler third. Both hit over .400 last season and give the team an outstanding double-play combination up the middle.
Stewart was a second team All-State selection last season, while Wheeler shared area Player of the Year honors as a sophomore.
“I don't want to upset any other coach, but I feel we have the two best players,” Geoff Stewart said. “They are so complete. Hitting, throwing, fielding and understanding the game, they are just a dream to work with and have on your squad. We expect huge things out of those two players.”
He called Stewart highly deserving of the region's No. 1 player honor.
“Emily is one of the most versatile players we've seen,” the coach said. “She can go play the outfield as well as anybody, play shortstop as well as anybody, or she can go behind the plate and be the best catcher. She also pitched earlier in her career.”
Wheeler batted .465 with 13 doubles and five home runs a year ago as the Lady Lions finished with 29 wins.
“Taylor's so strong, such a good mechanical hitter,” Geoff Stewart said. “She has gotten stronger over the last year. Now she hits it over the fence as well as in the gap.”
Other full-time returning starters for the Lady Lions include pitcher Lora Thompson, catcher Allison Roark, first baseman Nicole Goins and outfielder Bri Crooks.
Thompson, a sophomore, leads a deep pitching staff that also includes Alex Meade, Hannah Irvin and newcomer Megan Murphy, an eighth-grader.
“Lora did a great job last,” Stewart said. “The competition I think is going to make her better. All four bring something good to the table. Megan's got some skills well beyond an eighth-grader.”
Crooks, a junior outfielder, has already signed with the University of Rio Grande. She batted .389 as a sophomore and will likely move into the leadoff spot previously occupied by All-Area player Kaitlin Brown, who graduated.
The Lady Lions are also looking for big years from Roark and Goins.
“Allison worked really hard improving her catching skills,” Stewart said. “Her arm strength has gotten better. Nicole has a lot of pop in her bat. I expect 5-7 homers, and she does a steady job at first base.”
Hunter Reeves and Destiny Goins are young players with part-time starting experience.
Stewart said Brooke Murphy, Cameron Mullins and Lakin Crum are some of the others expected to contribute.
Fairview, 2-21 last season without a senior on the roster, expects to make strides in Lauren Ellis' second season as coach.
Catcher Maddie Kirk, an All-Area selection, and pitcher Tayler Thompson are both sophomores.
“Tayler worked the entire offseason and is one of the best pitchers in the area,” Ellis said. “She hits her spots, throws hard, and is a leader on the field. That will take us a long way in a lot of ball games. We have a very exciting season ahead of us.”
Third baseman Katie Ritchie, center fielder Kara Adkins and first baseman Sarah Dunn are other top returners.
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2671.