Call it the 64th District softball see-saw.
Ashland and Boyd County have alternated district championships every year since 2011.
Last season, Boyd County broke up a scoreless battle with 10 runs in the fifth inning to wrap up the title in walk-off fashion.
The Lady Lions, who went on to finish region runner-up to East Carter, graduated six full- or part-time starters. Among them were top pitcher Brooke Layne — a 21-game winner — and standout outfielder Ashton Rankin, who helped ignite one of the 16th Region’s highest-scoring offenses with her 54 runs and .403 batting average.
Boyd County is counting on senior slugger Bailey Conley returning to the pitching prowess that saw her help send Harrison County to the state tournament as a sophomore. She struck out 179 batters in 160 1/3 innings that year.
In her first season at Boyd County, however, Conley experienced control problems highlighted by 35 hit batters in 59 innings.
“Hopefully she recaptures the form she had as a sophomore and we end up having a long run,” Lady Lions coach Dave Wheeler said. “Bailey hit a lot of batters last season, but when she was on she was really good.”
Meanwhile, Ashland’s Haylie Haney and Mykayla Akers again figure to split time in the circle.
“Both were at about 99 innings (last year),” Kittens coach Scott Ingram said. “I look for both to contribute heavily to what we do this year.”
Class A Fairview returned to district competition in 2018, with five lopsided defeats to the two district powers.
“When you are playing with bigger, proven programs like that, it’s tough to compete,” Fairview coach Jamie Reihs said. “We play both twice. Obviously those are big games.”
Reihs gives a nod to Ashland in the district race.
It’s already been an exhilarating March for Boyd County’s second-year head coach.
Savannah Wheeler — Dave’s daughter — was crowned Kentucky’s Miss Basketball last week. She’s only the second player from the 16th Region to win the award.
“I’ve never been nervous, but I was the other night,” Dave Wheeler said of the ceremony in Lexington. “It’s pretty neat. I’m so proud and excited for her.”
Now, Kentucky’s top scorer this season will try to lead Boyd County’s girls to their first state championship this week in Rupp Arena.
Boyd County’s softball season starts Tuesday at Wayne (West Virginia). The Lady Lions’ roster includes four basketballers — sisters Graci and Emma Borders, along with Isabella Caldwell and Olivia Mulhearn.
Wheeler expects to have them available for diamond duty by March 23 — Boyd County’s home opener, also against Wayne.
Graci, the team’s center fielder, hit .367 as a junior with 41 runs and a .437 on-base percentage. Emma is a versatile sophomore who batted .305 last season. She scored 27 runs and drove in 23.
“I think Emma had seven game-winning hits last year,” Wheeler said. “She will play different positions. You don’t know where it’s going to be.”
Mulhearn also projects to be in the lineup at first base.
“We expect her to have a big part this season,” Wheeler said.
Caldwell, a sophomore, brings speed and will see playing time in the outfield.
“We want to try to build off what the basketball team’s done the last few seasons,” said Wheeler, alluding to the Lady Lions’ region three-peat. “I’m a big believer in that. We’re going to get some good leadership hopefully after Sunday. If you win, especially girls, it goes a long way.”
Boyd County won 28 games in Wheeler’s first season after moving over from Russell.
“The kids we graduated finished their career on a very good upside,” he said. “We played good softball the second half of the season and got on a roll.”
Conley, an All-Area selection, returns to anchor the lineup. The shortstop-pitcher drove in a team-best 46 runs. Her .382 average included 15 extra-base hits.
“Bailey’s one of the best hitters in the region,” Wheeler said. “She’s also a gifted fielder and has a good understanding of how to play. As far as pitching, when Bailey throws strikes she’s one of the best around. She will get it up there at 55 (mph), 58, and maybe hit 60.”
Sophomore outfielder Tori Badgett is expected to help out in the circle. Also, Wheeler expressed high hopes for young pitchers Ashley Howard and Sara Bays moving forward.
Bekah Badgett, a senior middle infielder, hit .333 in 44 plate appearances last season.
New faces in the regular lineup likely will include: sophomore Megan Castle and freshman Alex Blanton platooning at third base; sophomore Kylie Peterman at catcher; and junior Sophie Smith in left field.
“We will be a lot better team in May than March because we’re a work in progress,” Wheeler said. “Our JV last year was the only team to beat Cabell Midland. These girls like each other.”
Year in and year out, the Kittens play to a high standard. This season, there’s a new emphasis on looking forward and not being worn down by pressure.
“We really just tried to take a whole new approach, starting with me,” Ingram said. “We tend to carry a lot with us, whether it’s a bad at-bat or maybe an error. That stuff compounds itself. You’ve got tomorrow.”
Ashland returns the bulk of its starters from a 16-17 team.
“They are perfectionists,” he said. “I have a bunch of kids that don’t want to disappoint anybody ... their teammates, coaches, parents. You can’t play that way. That was my takeaway from last year. There were certain games where we did that and it was to our detriment.
“Tough schedule or not,” Ingram added, “I thought we underachieved as a whole. I had to take a look at myself first. It starts there. We’ve made some adjustments.”
In short, Ingram wants players to continue to give great effort without looking back.
“Just have some confidence,” he said. “I’ve tried to do a better job about building them up, too.”
All-Area returners Akers and Lauren Spears are two of the mainstays, whether it’s in the batter’s box, pitching circle or behind the plate.
Akers, a senior pitcher-first baseman, led the team offensively with seven home runs, 35 RBIs and a .396 batting average in 2018.
“Mykayla really came into her own swinging the bat,” Ingram said.
Spears sparkled as a freshman in the leadoff spot, batting .375, including five homers and 11 doubles. She scored 41 runs and swiped 19 bases.
“She got thrown out one time, by a kid from Alabama that’s going to Auburn,” Ingram said. “Lauren’s very dangerous at the top of our lineup in a variety of ways, plus doing a good job at catcher. With that kind of speed, we could stick her in a lot of places. She has a passion for catching.”
Akers and Haney again comprise a solid pitching combination as Ashland tackles another top-flight schedule.
“From what I’ve seen this fall and winter they are throwing well,” Ingram said. “I’m encouraged by that. At the end of the day, it starts in the circle. Those two bring different strengths and I have confidence in both.”
Haney plays first base when she’s not pitching. She hit six doubles and knocked in 17 runs last season.
Ruthie Paholsky, who signed with University of Findlay (Ohio), is back at the other corner position in Ashland’s all-senior infield.
“She really worked hard this winter, gained a lot of movement laterally,” Ingram said. “She has pretty good hands over there.”
Shortstop Zoë Ingram and second baseman Maddy Greene are third-year starters. Ingram hit three homers as a junior and scored or drove in 54 runs
“I think we’re as good in the infield as anybody,” Ingram said. “Overall, I feel like we’re strong up the middle with Lauren, Zoë, Maddy and Camryn Cassidy in center field.”
Cassidy missed last season due to a hip injury. Her twin sister Tabitha moves over to right field, with Taylor Craft or Kendall Hillard likely to start in left. Primary DP Kenzi Robinson (two HRs, 19 RBI) also returns. All are sophomores.
The Kittens launched 19 home runs last season. Based on experience, their coach sees the potential for more.
East Carter dominated the region in recent years behind All-American pitcher Montana Fouts. Now the door is open.
“I think it’s going to be a dogfight,” Ingram said. “There’s plenty of teams out there that can win it. I liked the challenge of competing against Montana and I think our girls did, too. But it’s not like we had a crying fit that she’s gone.”
The Lady Eagles will rely on their senior class and a seasoned sophomore this spring, according to Reihs.
“It’s a great group of seniors,” he said. “We will lean on them for a lot on offense and defense. They will be playing multiple positions.”
Alex Claar is set to handle most of the pitching after senior Tori Thompson did the bulk of the work a year ago. Claar knows how to handle the bat, as evidenced by her .600 average last season.
First baseman Megan Dunn adds pitching depth as well as offensive punch. Madison Reihs is another solid hitter — about .500 as a junior. She will play different spots around the infield and split time at catcher with sophomore Maddie Canterbury.
Other seniors for the Lady Eagles include outfielders Taylor Hamilton and Briannah Taylor, along with infielder Haleigh Baer.
Speedy sophomore center fielder Jordan Rakes serves as Fairview’s catalyst at the top of the lineup.
“I would put Jordan up against any of the 16th Region outfielders,” Jamie Reihs said. “She’s put in the time. She worked in the cage.”
Most of Lady Eagles’ 2018 games were decided by large margins as they posted a 10-18 record. The current varsity squad consists of 16 players. The Lady Eagles did not field a junior varsity team last year, but Reihs is pleased by the fact that there are enough athletes for middle school and JV squads.
“If our pitchers come out and do what they need to do, we will be competitive,” he said. “The biggest thing is for our kids to put forth effort through a full game.”
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Coach: Scott Ingram (5th season)
Last year: 16-17, region first round
Top players: Lauren Spears (Soph., C), Mykayla Akers (Sr., P/1B); Zoë Ingram (Sr., SS); Haylie Haney (Sr., P/1B); Ruthie Paholsky (Sr., 3B); Maddy Greene (Sr., 2B).
Coach’s outlook: “With our experience and the schedules we’ve played, there shouldn’t be anything we encounter that will make them wide-eyed, or scared. There shouldn’t be moments that are too big.”
18-Raceland; 21-Fairvew; 23-at Johnson Central, vs. Harrison Co. at J. Central; 25-at Coal Grove; 26-Chesapeake; 28-Bath County.
1-4 Cal Ripken Experience at Myrtle Beach, S.C.; 8-Russell; 12-Lou. Butler; 13-Dixie Heights; 14-Mercer County; 16-Boyd County; 18-at Huntington; 19-20 Big M Chevrolet Classic at Elizabethtown; 23-at Boyd County; 25-Fairview; 30-at Wheelersburg.
2-Rowan County; 3-Pikeville; 4-at Lex. Lafayette Tournament; 7-Lewis County; 9-at Raceland; 13-at Greenup County; 14-East Carter; 16-at Russell; 18-at Woodford County (second game TBA).
Coach: Dave Wheeler (2nd season)
Last year: 28-10, region runner-up
Top players: Bailey Conley (Sr., P/SS); Graci Borders (Sr., CF); Emma Borders (Soph., utility); Bekah Badgett (Sr., 2B/SS); Megan Castle (Soph., 3B/C); Tori Badgett (Soph., RF).
Coach’s outlook: “We’s not going to be the (region) favorite starting out. We know who we are and where we’ve got to go. We’re like the hunter, chasing people. We have 21 players. I can put 15 or 16 in and feel good about it.”
18-at Wayne; 19-at Mason County; 21-at Bath County; 23-Wayne; 25-Fairview; 28-at South Point; 31-April 4 Cal Ripken Experience at Myrtle Beach, S.C.;
8-at West Carter; 9-at East Carter; 10-at Greenup County; 12-Fleming County; 13-Shelby Valley, Scott; 15-at Lewis County; 16-at Ashland; 18-West Carter; 19-Huntington; 22-at Lawrence County; 23-Ashland; 29-at Huntington; 30-East Carter.
2-at Russell; 3-South Point; 6-at Wheelersburg; 7-Elliott County; 9-Greenup County; 10-Lawrence County; 11-Belfry, Montgomery County; 13-Russell; 14-Raceland; 17-Mason County; 18-George Rogers Clark.
Coach: Jamie Reihs (4th season)
Last year: 10-18, district first round
Top players: Alex Claar (Sr., P/1B); Madison Reihs (Sr., INF/C); Megan Dunn P/1B); Jordan Rakes (Soph., CF).
Coach’s outlook: “If our pitchers come out and do what they need to do, we will be competitive. The biggest thing is for our kids to put forth effort through the full game.”
18-at East Carter; 19-Tolsia; 21-at Ashland; 22-West Carter; 23-Elliott County (DH); 25-at Boyd County; 26-Ironton St. Joe; 31-April 4 Florida Beach Bash at Fort Walton Beach/Destin.
13-at Morgan County; 15-at Ironton St. Joe; 16-Morgan Count; 18-at Boyd County; 20-at Green (DH); 22-at Tolsia; 23-at Elliott County (DH); 25-at Ashland; 26-Menifee County; 27 Battle in the Hook at Elliott County; 30-East, Ohio.
2-at Prestonsburg; 7-at West Carter; 9-at Menifee County; 13-East Carter; 14-at Morgan County.