All of Ashland’s postseason softball championships are special to Dave Miller during his highly successful run as head coach.
Wednesday’s 64th District title 11 days after losing standout junior Sydney Whitt to a torn ACL left him bubbling with emotion.
The Kittens, already thin on depth, came from behind twice at Boyd County to defeat the Lady Lions 5-4 for Ashland’s sixth district crown in seven years.
“What a great game,” Miller gushed. “I’m so proud of my kids. They gutted it out. We had an eighth-grader (Sydney Campbell) behind the plate and a ninth-grader (Hayley Kilburn) that never played left field in her life until about a week ago. We had another freshman (Katie Baldock) that had to move over to center field and fill Sydney’s spot.”
Kilburn, the team’s regular catcher, delivered the game-winning hit in the fifth inning. She also helped seal the victory in the seventh with a charging catch in left while dropping to her knees and falling forward.
Baldock scored two runs, including the tie-breaker, and made a running grab in right-center to end a Boyd County threat.
Mainstays McKenzie Vanover and Megan Hensley also came through with big games as the Kittens avenged a 4-3 loss to Boyd County in last year’s district final.
“To get it back with this bunch is really satisfying,” Miller said. “It was a great effort. We put them through one of the most grueling practices ever on Sunday. They came out and got it done.”
The Kittens had to do it without Whitt, a dynamic leadoff hitter with excellent range in the outfield. She has five home runs and leads the team in triples and stolen bases.
“When you lose a player the quality of Sydney Whitt, it breaks your heart,” Miller said. “This team could have easily folded and run. But they dug in, and that’s what you saw today.”
Ashland opponents are increasingly wary of pitching to the power-hitting Vanover. Boyd County had two big decisions to make with Vanover at the plate, and both backfired.
With the score tied 1-1 in the third, the Lions elected not to give the junior slugger a free pass with first base open after Baldock singled with two outs and took second on a wild pitch.
Vanover took advantage, smacking a delivery from Boyd County starter Lora Thompson to straightaway center for her 12th home run of the season. That’s the most for any 16th Region player except former Kentucky Miss Softball Amber Riddle of Rowan County.
“I was stressed,” Vanover said. “I had to step back and think, this is the kind of situation I practice to be put in. I hit like I know I can hit, and the rest falls in.”
The next time Vanover came up, Ashland trailed 4-3 in the fifth after Boyd County scored three runs in the top of the inning.
Hensley doubled with one out, then Baldock drew a walk. Thompson had Vanover in a 1-2 hole, but at that point Boyd County coaches chose to give her an intentional walk to load the bases.
Megan Griffith walked on a full-count pitch to bring in the tying run, and Kilburn followed with a single to make it 5-4.
“With Vanover up there, I think we were just leery of what could happen,” Stewart said. “The last time we tried to pitch around her, it didn’t work. We were much more confident pitching to people behind her. You play the odds, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.”
Overall, Stewart was well-pleased with Thompson’s outing. The sophomore pitched a five-hitter that included 10 strikeouts and five walks.
Ashland’s Hensley also tossed a five-hitter, with nine strikeouts. She walked two batters in the first inning but no more the rest of the way.
“It was a tight game, back and forth the whole way,” Hensley said. “After Boyd County got up 4-3, I was nervous. But this is a team that knows how to fight, and that’s what we did.”
Whitt provided encouragement from the dugout.
“She was giving us pep talks, encouraging everybody,” said Hensley, who helped her own cause with two doubles.
Boyd County’s Taylor Wheeler went 2-for-3, including a two-run single, and stole two bases. Freshman Destiny Goins also doubled in the Lions’ three-run fifth.
Ashland (22-9) improved to 3-0 this season against Boyd County (24-11).
BOYD CO. 100 030 0 — 4 5 1
ASHLAND 012 020 x — 5 5 0
Thompson and Stewart; Hensley and Campbell. W—Hensley. L—Thompson. 2B—Hensley 2 (A), D. Goins (BC).