ASHLAND Conner Hughes had to wait over two hours to score his first run in the 16th Region championship game.
Raceland had to wait even longer to capture its second region title on Tuesday night.
A passing thunderstorm and heavy showers tried to damper the atmosphere at Alumni Field, but when play resumed, the runs started to rain down for the Rams.
Hughes scored three times, Colton Holman collected three hits and Jake Heighton gave up just one hit over his final four frames of work on the mound to guide Raceland to a 11-1 win over Ashland in five innings.
It was the first region crown for the Rams since 1991.
“We go into the locker room every day and look at that region poster,” Heighton said. “It had one number on it. 1991. It’s crazy to think that it hasn’t happened for that long. I’m happy that we were able to do it. It amazes me.”
Added Holman: “It is so exciting. This is awesome. We have talked about this moment all week.”
The Rams outscored its three opponents, 39-1, in their three region tournament games. Coach Marty Mills wears the orange and black proudly. Mills graduated from Raceland and savored the special moment with his team after the victory.
“It is numbing, to be honest with you,” Mills said. “It is super special, especially being a graduate myself, and with all the tradition that we’ve had.”
Heighton is no stranger to postseason pressure. He got everyone’s attention after winning a district game over top seed Greenup County as an eighth-grader.
The senior had extra time to wait before making one of the biggest starts of his high-school career. He was more concerned about his next swing of the bat — and his next meal. He was first up at the plate after Hughes walked before the rain started.
“During the delay, I was kind of hungry,” Heighton said. “I got some food. I wasn’t got to pitch (when we returned). I was going to hit. It was all I thought about. I wanted to get a hit and move the runner over.”
“When the big moments come around, that is when I feel my calmest,” he added. “I feel like I’m meant to be here. When I go into the dugout, my team is always there. Even if I’m doing bad, they always calm me down. They help me out through everything.”
Heighton advanced Hughes with a base hit and Hughes later scored Raceland’s first run on a wild pitch.
The Rams used small ball to their advantage in the contest. Kirk Pence bunted to score a tally with the squeeze play in third. Holman added a single to put a pair in scoring position.
Andrew Floyd responded with a two-run single, and Michael Meade drove in two more later in the stanza with a double to the right-center field gap.
“Once we looked at the field conditions, we weren’t going to run a whole lot,” Mills said. “We had to shut down the hit-and-run. We had to do some other things. We went back to bunting and tried to apply as much pressure as we could.”
Mills has a deep pitching rotation and has several arms at his disposal regardless of the situation. Raceland has only allowed 82 runs in 38 games this year.
“We have a tremendous amount of confidence in all of our guys,” Mills said. “Kirk threw a dominating performance on (Monday night). Jake takes the mound tonight and we had all the confidence in the world that we are going to perform really well.”
After serving up just one hit in the region semifinals, Pence realized the significance of the Tuesday’s win after the game.
“You are part of something that is bigger than yourself,” Pence said. “It is always the goal. When you can achieve that and do it for your school, it means a lot.”
The Pence household can lay claim to a pair of region titles. Pence’s father, Rob, was on the 1991 Raceland team and had a field-level seat to watch his son do the same as an assistant coach.
“He came up to me after the game and said, ‘Now we each got one,’” Pence said with a grin. “We are even. He’s not one up on me there anymore.”
“He wanted me to stay in the moment and enjoy it all. He said go out and compete and enjoy doing it.”
Raceland (31-7) enjoyed another five-run inning in the fifth to put the game out of reach. Two Ashland errors helped plate a pair. A wild pitch sent another home and Holman drove in two more with single, the perfect capper to his 3-for-4 night.
The senior said he approached the batter’s box on a mission after his first trip of the night.
“During my first at-bat, I watched the third strike, and I was upset with myself,” Holman said. “I said to myself that the fastball is coming. I had to take it opposite (field). I have to think small and put the ball in play.”
Holman usually finds runners on base in his cleanup position with the potent lineup around him.
“They always do their job,” Holman said. “I will bunt them over or do whatever I need to do to get them in.”
Heighton was 2 for 3 at the plate for the Rams. Floyd finished 2 for 4.
Ashland (15-22) knotted the score at 1-1 in the bottom of the first inning. NeShawn Peppers and Eli Miller opened the frame with singles. Ryan Brown knocked in Peppers with a base hit. The Tomcats would record just one more hit the rest of the way.
“Raceland is a very fine baseball team and a great program,” Ashland coach Evan Yongue said. “If you give them those opportunities, they are going to take them. We saw that over the course of the season. It’s what they did tonight. Jake Heighton did very well on the mound today.”
Yongue said the team came together and played their best baseball at the right time.
“I am so proud of how we went from individuals to a team,” Yongue said. “We battled that adversity. We saw what we can do when we play together. We came together as a program and we started working on that this season.”
Raceland will meet the 13th Region champion, Whitley County, in the semi-state round at Morehead State University on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
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RACELAND 105 05 — 11 9 1
ASHLAND 100 00 — 1 4 3
Heighton and Thornsberry; Atkins, Stevens (4), Brewer (5) and Mullins. W—Heighton. L—Atkins. 2B—Meade (R).