By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
It was a celebration that had been a long time coming. But it didn’t take the celebration long to get started after the first pitch.
“You don’t ever know you are going to dominate like that, but you are hoping you will continue to hit and play well,” South Laurel coach Burns said.
It became apparent early in Thursday’s 13th Region championship game that the Lady Cardinals were ready. Tuesday’s extra-inning win over six-time defending champion North Laurel had not left them satisfied as the dominated Corbin 12-0 in five innings.
“We had practice yesterday and we all made sure that we were fired up and ready to know that the North game was not our last game. We had to beat Corbin. We didn’t want to be relaxed and think we had it in the bag already,” South Laurel’s Amber Hyde said.
Hyde had hits in her first three at bats and drove in seven runs as the Lady Cardinals jumped on Corbin early. South Laurel hit from top to bottom in its lineup and also got no-hit pitching from Megan Smith. The only runner Smith allowed was on an error.
“I was pumped. I have never been more excited in my life,” Smith said.
South Laurel scored a pair of runs in the first inning and led 6-0 after three. Three runs in the fourth had them one run away from ending the game in five. South Laurel scored three runs in the fifth inning and with each hit it became harder to not celebrate.
For the South Laurel players, this moment had been building longer than five innings and even longer than the week of the tournament. Many were part of Little League teams that won state titles as 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds.
“They’ve been working at this since they played wee ball. A lot of them I’ve coached since then. It just feels good for them,” Burns said. “Us old people know what it is like when you miss an opportunity.”
Burns and many of his players missed an opportunity three years ago in his first year as head coach. The Lady Cardinals had a six run lead on North Laurel in the championship game and lost. This time he knew his team was ready.
“We had a really good practice. We were focused coming over. Sometimes we get a little goofy. We get too goofy and we don’t play well. They were really focused. The seniors were really dedicated to this and everybody came out and played well,” Burns said.
Cassandra Johnson opened the game with a single, followed by a bunt single from Brittany Vandeventer. The Lady Cardinals would use bunts very effectively throughout the game.
“Their corners were playing back a little bit and we read that. We hadn’t planned it until we got here,” Burns said.
Then Hyde did what she has done all year. A sharp single to right field scored both runners for a 2-0 lead.
“Amber Hyde played exceptional all year long. She is team MVP. It’s obvious,” Burns said. “All of them did great. Great pitching. Great fielding. Great hitting.”
Just a week earlier Corbin pitcher Hannah Hart had handcuffed the Lady Cardinals in a 3-0 South Laurel win. She would set them down in order in the second inning Thursday, but she would not do it again.
The third inning began with a bunt single by Laura Williams and a single by Johnson. A second bunt single by Vandeventer scored Williams. Hyde delivered again with a two-run single. Hyde scored on a groundout by Bailey Miller for a 6-0 lead.
Hyde came up again in the fourth inning with the bases loaded. She hammered the first pitch off the right field fence for a double and three more RBI. The first three South Laurel hitters were now a combined 6-for-6 with seven runs and seven RBI.
“I was afraid she wasn’t going to throw me anything I could hit. She acted like that the last time she wasn’t going to throw me anything,” Hyde said.
With the Lady Cardinals now one run away from ending the game on the Mercy Rule, the fifth inning became a preview of the celebration to follow. Williams, Smith, and Chelsea Wemes each had solid singles. Johnson walked with the bases loaded to force in the 10th run. Two more runs scored when Vandeventer reached on an error.
Smith mowed down the side in the fifth inning just as she had done the previous four.
“It was one of the best games I’ve pitched,” Smith said. “I came out focused and was ready to go.”
Hagan Burns had pitched the semifinal win over North Laurel. Smith knew after that game that she would get the call Thursday.
“We wanted to throw her to give the senior a chance. She pitched awesome,” Burns said.
Now the Lady Cardinals can turn their attention to preparing for the state tournament in Owensboro. Their first game will be Thursday night against unbeaten and top-ranked Greenwood.
“If they go up there and play like we can, I know we can compete,” Burns said.