By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
When the dust settled and the tears started, South Laurel advanced to the championship game of the 13th Region Tournament with a 7-6 win over North Laurel. The game took eight innings and ended a run of six straight 13th Region titles by the Lady Jaguars.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we played with heart. We didn’t give up,” South Laurel coach James Burns said.
The Lady Cardinals had been in this situation too many times. Their season ended with losses to North Laurel in the 13th Region Tournament each of the past six year. Five of those losses were in the championship game and one in extra innings.
“It’s heartbreaking to see that six seniors will not get to go to state, but you can’t ask for more than what they did. They left everything on the field,” North Laurel coach Becky Osborne said.
The Lady Cardinal saw a 5-2 lead disappear and trailed in the eighth inning. When Burns saw his bottom three hitters due up in the eighth he took comfort.
“I’ve been having a recurring dream and believe it or not in that dream we had our last three batters up to win the ballgame,” Burns said. “I got in this (coaches) box the last inning and I was calm. I said here we go.”
Chelsea Wemes led off the eighth inning with a single. Nell Murray stepped to the plate with no idea she would set in motion a memorable series of events. Murray slapped a pitch up the middle that was unplayable for North Laurel second baseman Kailin Yantz. Yantz tried to grab the ball and avoid contact with Wemes. Murray stood on first and Wemes on third as the umpires conferred. A runner interference call would be fatal to South Laurel.
“The ball was hit up the middle and Baldwin got a glove on it. It changed the direction of the ball. Once that happens there can be no runner interference,” Burns said. “I actually won an argument. They were going to call her out.”
As Burns smacked his hands together and returned to the dugout it was hard to tell if he was relieved or frustrated. Osborne’s face told much more of the story as play resumed with runners on the corners. Megan Baldwin struck out the next hitter and appeared to be close to working out the jam when Cassandra Johnson lifted a popup in the infield. The ball was misplayed with Wemes scoring the tying run. Brittany Vandeventer reached on a fielder’s choice to load the bases. That brought up the player you want up. Amber Hyde already had two hits and needed only to get a ball out of the infield. She has blasted 12 out of the field this season, so it wasn’t asking too much. Hyde delivered the game winner to put the Lady Cardinals one win away from the 13th Region title, a title they have not held since beating North Laurel 2-1 in the 2006 championship game.
“That’s just an emotional game. Any time these two teams plays emotions are high on both sides,” Burns said.
As the South Laurel players celebrated, many of the North Laurel players crumbled in tears where they stood. The six North Laurel seniors had made it to the state tournament every year until now.
“The effort was unquestionable 110 percent. They left everything, blood, sweat, and tears on this field. Unfortunately it didn’t go the way we wanted it to,” Osborne said.
The night started well for North Laurel with a run in the second inning. Blake Johnson singled and scored on a groundout by Mikayla Vires. The lead didn’t last long with South Laurel scoring twice in the bottom of the second.
“That was important. Anytime you have the lead you have the pressure on the other team,” Burns said.
Bailey Miller started the rally with a leadoff double and Megan Smith reached on an error. A one-out single by Nell Murray drove in the tying run. The go-ahead run scored on a double steal.
North Laurel bounced back to tie the game in the third. McKenzie Mills singled and scored on a double by Vanessa Smith.
“I threw everything we had. You just don’t fool them. They usually get a good solid swing on the bat,” Burns said.
The Lady Cardinals again answered with two runs in the bottom of the third. Hyde singled with two outs and scored on a double by Hagan Burns. A double by Bailey Miller made it a 4-2 South Laurel lead. They would tack on one more run in the fifth on an RBI single by Vandeventer to make it 5-2.
“I knew they would not quit. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that it would not stay 5-2. I honestly thought we would win just because of the heart they have. I couldn’t ask for a better team,” Osborne said.
Burns was also uneasy with the three-run lead.
“We were in a situation like that two years ago, even more than that in region finals and they came back and beat us. You don’t ever have enough runs against them because they hit the ball too well,” Burns said.
With two outs in the fifth inning, the expected North Laurel rally began quietly with a walk to Mills. A fly ball by Yantz was misplayed to allow Mills to score. Smith singled home Yantz with another run. Johnson lifted a soft fly to left field that no one could get. Smith scored to tie the game.
“We made too many errors and missed too many fly balls, but a win is a win and we’ll take it,” Burns said.
North Laurel jumped ahead in the eighth inning. Sears led off with a single and went to second when the ball got by the outfield. A Vires’ bunt moved her to third and set up an RBI single by Farris Strong.
“I thought we played well. Megan pitched good. They played behind her good. The defense was there when they did get hits,” Osborne said.
Burns praised his defense as well, including a great play by Miller at first and Vandeventer’s flawless fielding of bunt. As Burns watched his team celebrate the win, he was already thinking of the next game. A win over Corbin would send the Lady Cardinals to the state tournament.
“I think a lot of North Laurel. I have coached several of their girls, but I’m glad we move on,” Burns said. “We’ve got a tough game. They want to celebrate and we’ve got to beat a tough Corbin team for the fourth time. I told them they have one night to celebrate.”