Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

March 30, 2014

Kittens take aim at No. 6

Rocky Stanley
The Independent

ASHLAND — Ashland softball coach Dave Miller still marvels at what the Kittens accomplished last spring.

Despite considerable youth and injuries to standout center fielder Sydney Whitt and starting catcher Hayley Kilburn, the Kittens came through with a fifth consecutive 16th Region championship and Top 8 finish in the State Tournament.

“I don’t think people really understand,” Miller said last week. “When I think back, it’s like ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’ We had two freshmen and a sophomore in the outfield. There was an eighth-grader catching, a sophomore at shortstop, of course another one pitching, and we competed against the best in the state. That’s pretty exciting.”

Miller paused for a moment.

“They just rose to the occasion. We beat a really good team (Boyd County) in the district, went on to win the regional tournament again and played extremely well down at state. It was awesome.”

The Kittens will try to do it all over again in Miller’s final season at Ashland before he leaves to take over Kentucky Christian University’s new softball program.

“It’s an odd feeling for me, almost surreal,” he said. “I can’t imagine this being my last season here. We worked really hard to build a tradition and top-flight program. You have such great bonds with these kids from an early age. Some of them I’ve worked with since there were 9 or 10 years old.”

Ashland has averaged 25.4 wins in Miller’s eight years as coach, including six district titles to go with the Kittens’ run in the regional tournament. It’s been quite a ride, Miller acknowledged, and it’s not over yet.

“I want every ounce of my energy and focus to be on this season,” he said. “We want to have another great season and attain all these goals that have been set. These kids want it, and they work hard. It’s become a year-round thing.”

Co-regional tournament MVPs Megan Hensley and McKenzie Vanover again lead the charge for the Kittens, who were ranked 16th in the state coaches’ preseason Top 25. Both players hit in the .400 range last spring.

Hensley, a second team All-State selection and the All-Area Pitcher of the Year, joined an elite group in Kentucky history to strike out 400 batters in a season. Vanover, meanwhile, hammered 15 home runs as a junior including two blasts against Russell in the regional final.

“Like I’ve said many times, those two put us on their back and just carried us,” Miller said. “That’s the type of players they are.”

The hard-throwing Hensley led the 2013 State Tournament in strikeouts and verbally committed to Louisville during the offseason. Hensley is off to a 2-0 start this season, including a one-hitter Thursday at Lewis County.

“Megan is such a great competitor in the circle, and she hits as well as she pitches,” Miller said.

With Whitt returning from knee surgery to her familiar leadoff role, Miller has shifted Hensley to the clean-up spot to provide protection behind Vanover. Last year, Vanover drove in more than 50 runs despite leading the team in walks.

Miller expects the Kittens’ offense to be stronger this season up and down the lineup. Whitt combines speed and power at the top of the order. She batted .338 with five triples and five homers as a junior before missing the entire postseason.

Released by her doctor in December, Whitt is running well again.

“Sydney is one of the quickest kids I ever coached, maybe one of the quickest we’ve seen around here in a long time,” Miller said. “She covers a lot of ground in the outfield and is consistently 2.5 or 2.6 (seconds) from home to first base.”

Ashland graduated two starters in the infield, but several younger players from the 27-11 team are a year older and Miller has been pleased with their improvement.

“They really grew up last year and got a huge amount of experience,” the coach said.

Kilburn, who hit three homers as a freshman and took a .360 average into the State Tournament, is expected to play mostly in left field. Freshman Sydney Campbell has settled in behind the plate after doing a solid job there last season when Kilburn was out with an injury.

Sophomore Katie Baldock shifts to fill a void at second base, where Katie Caron had been a fixture. Baldock makes good contact and bats in the No. 2 slot.

“With Sydney and Katie, it gives us a great one-two punch at the top of the lineup,” Miller said.

Juniors Megan Griffith (shortstop) and Jordan Meade (right field) also return to the starting lineup.

“Megan is hitting the ball well and Jordan had an awesome summer,” Miller said. “She has worked really hard on her swing.”

Sophomore Carly Conley and senior Alexis Carius, a transfer from Columbus, are both expected to see playing time at third base.

“Alexis has good size and is one of the strongest players on the team,” Miller said. “She just has to learn how we do things.”

Freshman Megan Murphy, who played for Boyd County last season, will be counted upon to provide pitching depth behind Hensley.

“She’s so young and gangly, she reminds me of a baby deer,” Miller said. “As the season goes along, I think she becomes very important to us. She can run, pitch, play an infield spot. I think she gives us a good second arm in the circle.”

Freshman Madison Tabor is the Kittens’ No. 3 pitcher. Overall, Ashland also will be looking for help off the bench from such players as Mattie Shivel, Katelyn McKenzie and Gabby Ingram.

The 64th District is deeper than ever this season. Boyd County remains a strong threat for district and region titles, while Fairview’s program continues to rise under the direction of third-year coach Lauren Ellis.

Boyd County lost six full-time players from a 25-12 regional semifinal team, including shortstop/catcher Emily Stewart who shared All-Area Player of the Year honors with Ashland’s Vanover. But standout senior Taylor Wheeler leads another talented Lady Lions’ squad with high expectations.

“You don’t replace somebody like Emily, you just move on,” Boyd County coach Geoff Stewart said. “My players and coaching staff are all confident we can make a run at a regional title. I think we will be a strong hitting team. Like everybody else, we have not done a lot outside because of the weather.”

The Lady Lions are in Myrtle Beach, S.C., this week to take part in the Cal Ripken Experience. Boyd County is scheduled to play eight varsity and eight JV games.    

Wheeler plays shortstop and anchors the team’s offense and infield defense. She’s a .450 career hitter, entering the season with 85 extra-base hits and 144 runs batted in.

“Taylor’s the mainstay, the one we build around,” Stewart said. “To me, she’s the best all-around player in the region. We expect big things from her, and expect her to be our leader.”

The Lady Lions again figure to be strong up the middle. Sophomore Destiny Goins, who hit .350 last season, has moved behind the plate to catch a deep pitching staff. Freshman Houston Reeves starts at second base after missing last season with an injury, and senior center fielder Bri Crooks provides excellent defense to go with a good bat (.389 last season) in the leadoff spot.

“Bri just shows up, works hard every day and competes,” Stewart said of the three-year starter who will go on to play at the University of Rio Grande. “She’s a winner. Like Taylor, we expect a lot out of Bri ... a lot of leadership. She wants to go out a winner. She wants to win a regional championship.”

Boosting Boyd County’s chances is newcomer Kenzi Martin, who transferred from nearby Rock Hill in Ohio. The junior first baseman has excellent power.

“She’s a huge addition,” Stewart said. “Kenzi brings a tremendous amount of talent to our program. She’s a very good hitter, runs the bases well and plays good defense. I think she was 8-for-12 in our three games in Rowan County’s tournament to start the season.”

Boyd County went 2-1, beating Corbin and Menifee County, while losing 5-4 to Rowan County.

As for pitching, senior Alex Meade and juniors Lora Thompson and Hannah Irvine all bring experience to the circle.

“I feel very confident with that group,” Stewart said. “I definitely see that as a strength. All three are veterans who improved in the offseason. We can platoon and rotate, so when the end of the season comes we don’t have dead arms. Lora can buzz it up there with a lot of velocity. Alex does really well hitting her spots, and Hannah does a nice job keeping the ball down low.”

Thompson will play third base when she’s not pitching, with Meade backing her up.

Junior Cameron Mullins is expected to fill an outfield spot. Other players competing for playing time include Aryanna Cannoy, Shelby Wright, Morgan Price and McKenzie Templeton. Stewart said the latter two have been out for extended time due to injuries, “so we’re looking for them to get back into playing shape and help us out.”

As for picking a region favorite, Stewart still considers Ashland the team to beat.

“Somebody will have to knock them off because they are not going to go easily,” he said.

Ellis, one of Stewart’s former Boyd County players, has quickly transformed Fairview into a respected team in the region. The Lady Eagles went from two wins in her first season to 17 last year.

“Lauren’s done a fantastic job with their program,” Stewart said. “We will have a fight on our hands when we play them. They have improved that much.”

The Lady Eagles are off to a 3-3 start, including a nine-inning loss to Greenup County (4-1). Most recently, Fairview dropped a 6-3 game to Russell, the defending region runner-up.

“I’m very excited about my team,” Ellis said. “For the first time, I can put them out there and they will compete with anybody in the region. For two straight years we were one of the youngest teams, if not the youngest. The girls have been very teachable, like sponges.”

Ellis keeps stressing fundamentals and the players continue to improve.

“It’s not me, these kids just want it,” the coach said.

Fairview has only three seniors after graduating two off last year’s roster. Junior Sarah Dunn is a returning All-Area selection. Two other juniors, Tayler Thompson and Maddie Kirk, continue to provide the team with a solid battery.

“Tayler looks strong (pitching) and in my opinion Maddie is one of the best (catchers) in the region,” Ellis said.

Eighth-grader Sydney Ekers has taken over the leadoff spot and become a catalyst for the Lady Eagles.

“Sydney has not cracked under the pressure,” Ellis said. “She plays like a junior out there.”

Sophomore Lyndsey Burke follows Ekers in the lineup and “can flat fly,” according to Ellis. Tayler Thompson, Kirk and Dunn make up the middle of the lineup, followed by junior Becca Thompson and freshman Cassidy Roy.

By design, dependable senior center fielder Kara Adkins bats in the ninth spot.

“It’s like having a double leadoff with Kara and Sydney,” Ellis said.

Fairview’s coach is full of admiration for Ashland and Boyd County, the longtime district and region powers. At the same time, she’s proud of how the Lady Eagles are closing the gap.

“Last year, we lost to Boyd County 10-5 in the district tournament,” Ellis said. “We played a full game with them. You respect both teams and prepare the best you can. We’re a little school. We’re going to give it the best shot we’ve got. I don’t think any other coach in the region would want to trade with us.”

One of Fairview’s top goals is making a strong run in the All “A” Classic.

“Our eyes need to be set on that every year,” Ellis said. “It gives us an opportunity to go to the State Tournament.”

ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at rstanley@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2671.