LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
It has been a collision course for North Laurel and Ashland Blazer to meet in the Rawlings/ KHSAA Softball State Tournament in Owensboro. Both know their way to Owensboro. The Kittens are making their fourth straight trip to the. The Lady Jaguars are making their sixth straight appearance. They have not played each other in any of those appearances.
“I know Ashland has played a real nice schedule this year. They have a nice pitcher. It’ll be a challenge for us, but these kids have played well all year and I think we’re ready to go down there,” North Laurel coach Rogers Strong said.
Shortstop / pitcher Kelsee Hammonds was ranked as the No. 12 player in the state by iHigh.com. That’s just ahead of a pair of Lady Jaguars. Sidney Herrell ranks No. 14 and Kristin Fields No. 17. Hammonds is one of fourth Ashland Blazer seniors (Emily Preece, Kat Jackson and Jordan Hensley) that have made the state tournament each year of their high school career. Preece earned MVP honors in the 16th Region Tournament with a strong hitting performance, including three doubles in the semifinals.
In the previous three appearances, Ashland won two games twice and one game in 2009. Despite the frequent trips to the state tournament, North Laurel and Ashland Blazer have not met since an 11-1 North Laurel win during the 2004 regular season.
“We’re going down to play our best. We’ve got a tough opponent in the first round,” Strong said.”
There are a lot of reasons for the Lady Jaguars to be optimistic going into this year’s state tournament. North Laurel is experienced with much of the roster being part of one or more of trips to the state tournament the previous five years.
“Every year we have hitting, we have fielding. We are as close as ever this year and I just think the chemistry and our talent is what gets us there,” junior shortstop Sidney Herrell said.
The Lady Jaguars’ current 21-game winning streak is the longest of any team in the tournament. Oldham County has won 18 straight since their last loss on April 13. Greenwood has won just three straight, but that number would be 24 straight is they had not been upset by Bowling Green 2-1 in the finals of the 4th District Tournament. North Laurel’s last loss came at Assumption on April 21.
“They are just outstanding kids on and off the field and I think we are going to represent the 13th Region well,” Strong said.
Despite the winning streak, North Laurel does not have the best record in the tournament. Greenwood (36-5) and Green County (37-3) have more wins than North Laurel (35-5). Lone Oak (35-4) also has a better overall record. One thing the teams with better records have in common, they are in the bracket opposite the Lady Jaguars, along with most of the higher ranked teams.
“All the Louisville teams are in the bottom bracket and we won’t have to face them until later on,” North Laurel senior Kristin Fields said. “We don’t want to get big-headed, but we have the confidence to carry us to the state championship.”
With a North Laurel’s No. 10 ranking in the final coaches poll, only No. 5 Christian County has a higher ranking in the upper bracket. No. 22 Oldham County is the only other ranked team. The bottom bracket includes No. 3 Greenwood, No. 4 Mercy, and No. 7 Green County. No. 1 Allen County and No. 2 Ballard lost in their region championship games and did not make the tournament.
“I didn’t say it, but I felt like all season we had the best team in the region,” Strong said. “I’ve told the kids since last fall we’re not to not just win the region and go play. We’re going to go down and try to make some noise.”
North Laurel has not lost since Strong took over coaching duties due to an accident has sidelined head coach Becky Osborne.
“She means so much to us and she had that horrible accident. We just feel like we should do it for her. She helped us so much at the beginning of the year and we feel like we should carry it out and win it for her,” Herrell said.
Strong shrugs off any role he may have played in getting the team back to the state tournament.
“It’s not about me. It’s about those kids over there. I’m proud to be associated with them and have the opportunity to work with them,” Strong said. “Six straight regional championships is quite an accomplishment and it’s a real tribute to the kids and how hard they work. The countless off-season hours and the dedication they display is what makes our program go.”