Russell’s rally on Friday night put Ashland in a position it hasn’t been in often this season: a true test from a 16th Region opponent.
That was just fine with the Kittens.
The Lady Devils climbed within 3-2 of the five-time defending region champions through five innings on Alexis Maynard’s pinch-hit home run. But Ashland senior Sydney Whitt tripled home three runs in the next half-inning and the Kittens squelched Russell’s surge with the final four runs of the night, winning 7-2 on the Lady Devils’ Senior Night.
“It put us in a position to respond, and I thought we responded well,” Ashland coach Dave Miller said of the Lady Devils’ late push. “We were (up) 3-2 and we come right back and answer with three, and then add another one later, which is what good teams do. They respond to those situations.”
Megan Hensley two-hit the Lady Devils and struck out 13. Whitt went 2-for-3 and McKenzie Vanover was 3-for-4 with a double and a home run, the 42nd of her career — second in KHSAA history.
The Kittens improved to 26-4 and 14-1 against region opponents.
After a trio of run-rule victories against West Carter, Lewis County and Raceland earlier in the week, getting pushed by the Lady Devils (13-16) had benefits, Ashland said.
“I like getting challenged,” Whitt said. “It makes you a better player.”
Ashland led 3-0 through three innings on Hensley’s groundout, a Russell passed ball that scored a run, and Vanover’s laser long ball to left.
The Kittens were cruising along entering the home half of the fifth before Russell made it a game in a hurry. With two outs, eighth-place hitter Kenzy Moore walked and Maynard launched a pinch-hit homer.
But Ashland wasted no time countering. The Kittens loaded the bases in the top of the sixth, and with two outs, Whitt drove the ball to the fence in right-center field to plate Hayley Kilburn, Jordan Meade and Carly Conley.
“That hit was a big deal for them, especially on their Senior Night,” Whitt said of Maynard’s blast. “If they would have kept going into the seventh inning like that, they would have been like, ‘You know what, one run, we’re tied.’ Anyone can hit a blooper. It can happen easily. So when we came out there and scored all those runs, it kind of put them down.”
Miller was happy to see his senior center fielder come through.
“It was a huge hit at a huge time,” he said of Whitt’s triple. “Here’s the thing that I wanted to do, is get confidence going. We want to start seeing some confidence in that situation, and if we do, it’ll be good.”
Kilburn added a sacrifice fly in the seventh to complete the Kittens’ spree of four unanswered runs.
“Good teams do that. That’s the way you roll,” Russell coach Carol Stevens said. “But I told the girls not to ever hang their head, because they were there. They were in it. Good teams will get the hits when they need them.”
Mallory Powell took the decision for the Lady Devils. The senior went the distance, allowing nine hits and three walks. She fanned two Kittens.
Both pitchers benefited from strong defensive efforts behind them. Miller mentioned scoops by Vanover at first base. Russell’s web gems included Hannah Carter’s diving stop for a forceout, Abbie Gambill’s over-the-shoulder catch in foul territory and a sliding play by Emma Ison in left field.
“I thought our defense was phenomenal,” Stevens said. “We have really grown the last few weeks. We’ve really come together as a ballclub.
“What a great game to get us ready for next week going into the tournament. I saw a lot of good stuff. Even though we didn’t hit as well, I saw a lot of other good stuff.”
Russell completed its regular season and prepares to face Raceland in the 63rd District Tournament semifinals on Tuesday at Lewis County. Ashland travels to the Bullitt East Invitational today for tilts with Central Hardin, ranked third in the state by the Kentucky Softball Coaches Association, and No. 11 Bullitt East.
The No. 19 Kittens then await the Boyd County-Fairview winner in the 64th District Tournament final on Tuesday.
ASHLAND 201 003 1 — 7 9 1
RUSSELL 000 020 0 — 2 2 1
Hensley and Campbell; Powell and Gullett. W — Hensley. L — Powell. 2B — Vanover (A). 3B — Whitt (A). HR — Vanover (A), Maynard (R).
ZACK KLEMME can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2658.