Scott Ingram had to pump the brakes on his softball team during its celebratory dinner on Tuesday night.
“They were like, ‘Turn the lights on. We’re ready to practice!’” Ingram said. “I said, ‘I’m sure you are now, but what about when that adrenaline wears off?’”
It’s hard to blame the Kittens for clamoring for more field time. They had just crushed Raceland, 12-0, in the 16th Region championship game. The Lady Rams hadn’t been shut out all season.
“I’d been wondering all year what it would look like when we all clicked like I knew we could,” Ingram said on Thursday. “We pretty much found out. We can be very, very dangerous. I think that’s going to carry over, or I hope it will.”
Ashland (24-11) and Johnson Central (24-15) comprise today’s Semi-State 8 matchup at 4 p.m. at Kentucky Christian University’s Championship Fastpitch Complex in Coalton. The field is located beyond the Boyd County Fairgrounds.
Ashland is making its first state tournament appearance since 2015, when the Kittens were one of the last three teams standing on the final day in Owensboro.
Ingram’s five seniors were eighth-graders then. One of them — Ruthie Paholsky — wasn’t at Ashland at the time.
Johnson Central hasn’t represented the 15th Region at State since 2016.
This postseason takes on a completely new look. The softball tournament now features a single-elimination format. The eight winners of the semi-state games will convene at the University of Kentucky’s John Cropp Stadium — as opposed to Jack C. Fisher Park in Owensboro — on Friday for the quarterfinal round.
Ingram has mixed feelings about the current scenario.
“I like the fact that we got rid of the double-elimination nonsense,” Ingram said. “I don’t want to be critical of it. Let’s see what happens.”
Ingram expects his group to feel anxious as first pitch approaches.
“If you’re not a little nervous, you probably need to check if you even like playing,” Ingram said. “This is a stage these girls haven’t been on before, but we’ve played in some big games. We’ve had a tough schedule the last three or four years.”
Ashland trumped Johnson Central, 4-2, on March 23. Haylie Haney, who tossed the shutout against Raceland, surrendered zero earned runs over seven frames.
The Lady Eagles threw Alyssa Hedrick. Hedrick has since become the regular shortstop as sophomore Chloe VanHoose graces the circle.
VanHoose has allowed a single run in 33 postseason innings. Overall, she’s logged 158 innings while compiling a 1.68 earned run average. She’s amassed 225 strikeouts.
“From what I’ve seen of her, she stays in the strike zone and has pretty good velocity,” Ingram said. “Their defense does a pretty good job behind her. She likes to go up in the zone and get you to chase that. She has a pretty good rise ball.”
Johnson Central toted a losing record, at 14-15, before gathering 10 straight wins.
“Our goal was to win the region, and now our goal is to win the next game,” said Johnson Central coach Joey Estep. “This is a good opportunity to go and play at Kentucky Christian. We want to go play in Lexington.”
When Estep’s bunch faced Ashland more than two months ago, he had a feeling the Kittens would emerge from a competitive region. He said he was especially impressed with senior shortstop Zoë Ingram, Scott’s daughter.
“I thought they might be the best team in the 16th then,” Estep said. “We scheduled a lot of 16th Region teams for this reason.”
The Lady Eagles went 4-5 against 16th Region foes. The triumphs came over Raceland, Rowan County, Russell and Greenup County.
Center fielder Alaina Castle leads Johnson Central with a .434 batting average, 15 doubles and four triples. Hedrick is hitting .417 with 42 RBIs.
Scott Ingram said he is comfortable with handing the ball to either Haney or Mykayla Akers. They possess 1.90 and 2.41 ERAs, respectively.
“They’ve been supportive of each other,” Ingram said of the future KCU teammates. “They both threw against Lewis (in the region tournament’s first round). Then Mykayla throws a gem. Then Haylie throws a gem. They’ve been solid all year.”
Sophomore catcher Lauren Spears and her .476 average lead off the lineup. She has seven home runs, eight triples, 36 RBIs, 51 runs and 18 stolen bases. Zoë Ingram is batting .416. Akers hits at a .385-clip. She’s smacked 11 homers.
Cloaked in controversy
Johnson Central and Ashland last dueled in the state tournament in 2014. For the Lady Eagles, it’s a day that lives in infamy. If nothing else, it was mired in controversy.
Ashland outlasted the Lady Eagles, 1-0, with the assist of a call that wiped out what would have been a game-winning home run by Rachelle Fairchild. The umpires ultimately ruled the hit a ground-rule double, placing runners at second and third. Ashland’s Megan Hensley, who became Miss Softball the next season, induced a game-ending lineout. The wild sequence of events resulted in former coach Jason Hurt’s ejection and prevented the Lady Eagles from notching their first state-tournament victory.
KHSAA assistant commissioner Darren Bilberry, with the help of WYMT video footage, acknowledged the umpires made an error in judgment. The ball did, in fact, clear the portable fence in Owensboro on June 6, 2014.
Johnson Central achieved that previously elusive win a year later in 2015.
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