Whether the destination is Lexington, Owensboro or even a jaunt down the road, the state tournament is, well, the state tournament.
Scott Ingram said as much.
“The state tournament’s exciting if you played it down at Water Works (Ashland American Little League’s complex),” Ashland’s softball coach quipped.
The University of Kentucky’s John Cropp Stadium will be the site of the state quarterfinals, semifinals and finals over the next three days. Ashland will face Warren East today at 1 p.m. at the home of the Wildcats. Owensboro’s Jack C. Fisher Park was the place of play from 2008-18.
“We’d go to Owensboro and be tickled to death about it, but come on, UK’s field? We were riding back on the bus after the (Semi-State 8) game Saturday, Mykayla (Akers) is like, ‘Are you all excited to be coaching on UK’s field?’ I’m like, ‘You think?’ I’m more happy for them, but it’s exciting for all of us, obviously,” Ingram said. “Not only are the facilities fantastic, it’s Kentucky.”
Ashland (25-11) rebounded from a 1-0 loss in the 64th District championship game to rack up four consecutive postseason wins. The Kittens have outscored that quartet of opponents, 25-1. They managed to upend Johnson Central, 1-0, in Saturday’s semi-state contest despite having no hits.
Ingram is confident in pitchers Akers (13-6, 2.27 earned run average, 170 strikeouts in 120 1-3 innings) and Haylie Haney (12-5, 1.90 ERA, 88 Ks in 95.2 IP).
“We’ve just been very, very solid, and that’s an understatement, all year long,” Ingram said of Ashland’s circle-dwellers. “Lately, it’s been one (run) or less, but I typically have told them, ‘Hey, these kids are gonna keep us in every ball game.’ ... Not only them, but our defense has been pretty solid as well and stepped up even more the last couple weeks. Knowing that going in, I think that’s got to help us as far as knowing that we’re gonna be in the ball game the whole time and just to keep grinding at the plate and finding a way to get something.”
The Kittens will likely oppose Warren East hurler Katie Gardner. Gardner has put up superb numbers. She is 30-1 with a staggering 321 punchouts in 171 1-3 frames. The senior has compiled a 0.74 ERA.
Gardner is a Tennessee-Martin signee who owns six career school records and 10 season marks for the Lady Raiders, according to The Daily News (Bowling Green). She is a Miss Softball candidate.
Gardner will counter an Ashland lineup that consists of four hitters batting .375 or better. Tenth-grade catcher Lauren Spears leads off and is hitting .465 with 51 runs scored. Freshman outfielder Kaythan Baer (.411), senior shortstop Zoë Ingram (.404) and Akers (.377) all tote dependable sticks to the dish. Akers has cranked a team-high 11 home runs.
Fourth Region champion Warren East’s formidable batting order features a pair of .500 hitters — Lucy Patterson (.518) and Kelsey Sparks (.504). Hailey Hymer (.430 batting average) has blasted 11 bombs. Jeyda Bays (.412) can claim 10 big flies and Olivia Price (.420) has eight jacks to go with 58 RBIs. Gardner isn’t too shabby at the plate, either, hitting .383 with nine homers.
Warren East went 4-2 in State games a year ago. The Lady Raiders were runners-up to Scott County in 2018.
“I’m sure we’re not anybody’s favorite, except from about 22 people and their families,” Scott Ingram said. “That’s including the players and the coaches. There’s no reason to go in with any expectations other than just to play and do what we’ve been doing. We’ve told them all year, and I meant it — there’s nobody in the state that I feel like, when we walk through the gate and look across the field, that we need to be intimidated by.”
An attempt to reach Warren East coach Philip McKinney for comment was unsuccessful.
The Kittens are making their first State appearance since 2015, when the Miss Softball Megan Hensley-led squad was one of three teams standing on the final day.
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