By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
If South Laurel could rewind the first inning, it may have been able to break North Laurel’s six-year grip on the 13th Region Tournament. The Lady Jaguars scored three runs in the first inning and then relied on pitching and defense for a 4-1 win in Thursday’s region title game.
“That was a clutch ball game against a great ball club. South, they are competitors. They are well-coached. And with the rivalry with North and South you can thrown everything out,” North Laurel coach Rogers Strong said.
South Laurel outhit the Lady Jaguars 8-4 with three of North Laurel’s hits coming in the first inning. They went down in order in the second through fourth innings. A pair of walks gave North Laurel base runners in the fifth. The only North Laurel hit after the first inning was a on a fake bunt by Farris Strong that she was able to slap over Casie Finely at second base.
“We didn’t execute that first inning and that did us in,” South Laurel coach James Burns said.
South Laurel has not made it to the state tournament since beating North Laurel 2-1 in 12 innings in the 2006 13th Region finals in Corbin. Since then the Lady Jaguars have ended South Laurel’s season each year in the region tournament. Five of those losses were in the finals.
“It’s just hard for these girls. They worked so hard and it comes almost down to two plays more or less. The last few years it’s come down to one or two plays,” Burns said. “I told them I’m extremely proud of them. They showed a lot of heart and played hard all year.”
North Laurel has now reeled off 21 straight wins as it prepares for a first-round state tournament game with Ashland Blazer Thursday in Owensboro. They expected nothing less from this season.
“Every year we have our ups and downs, but there was never a doubt in my mind we would make it back to the state tournament,” North Laurel’s Sidney Herrell said.
Thursday’s win allowed Strong to express an opinion he kept secret since March.
“I can say this now because I wouldn’t say it all through the season. I feel like we had the best team in the region all year long. I felt like our schedule prepared us for this and I couldn’t be prouder of the kids,” Strong said.
A fast start by the Lady Jaguars would be the difference. Along with the three first inning hits, the Lady Jaguars also benefitted from a pair of South Laurel errors. Kailin Yantz had the game’s first hit and scored the first run on a passed ball. Kristin Fields reached on an error and scored on a bunt by Emily Sears. Megan Baldwin walked and scored on an infield single by Vanessa Smith. Only the single by Yantz left the infield.
“We kind of jumped on them. I don’t know if they were expecting our short game. We executed real well. After that they settled in,” Strong said.
Despite the quick start by the Lady Jaguars, Burns did not worry about his team getting blown out.
“I felt we would come back and play. We just had to turn the faucet off,” Burns said.
Hagan Burns did that and gave her team a chance to rally.
“You’ve got to give them some credit (Hagan) Burns pitched a nice ball game. She had us off-stride with her change up. She threw it well and had great location on it,” Strong said.
With Burns retiring 10 straight batters, the Lady Cardinals pushed a run across in the top of the third. Bailey Miller singled into left field, one of three hits on the night for the sophomore. Baldwin almost worked her way out of trouble by retiring the next two batters. When Destinee Fisher reached on an error the Lady Cardinals had runners at second and third. Sidney Herrell made a great stop at shortstop, but could not throw out Amber Hyde as the Lady Cardinals made it a 3-1 game.
“The momentum did shift for a while, but we kind of refocused. Our defense was real steady and Megan (Baldwin) did a great job of hitting her spots,” Strong said.
South Laurel threatened again in the fourth inning with singles by Chelsea Wemes and Miller. Another base runner was stranded in the fifth when Fisher singled.
North Laurel manufactured a run in the fifth without getting a hit. Mikayla Vires led off with a walk and moved to second on a Herrell bunt. A ground out by Yantz moved Vires to third, where she would score on a passed ball.
“The run we got late was big. It gave us just a little push and a little breathing room,” Strong said.
Another big play for North Laurel came in the top of the sixth inning. South Laurel’s Megan Smith singled with one out and Mackenzie Powenski came in to run. With two outs, Miller singled to left field. Burns motioned for Powenski to advance to third. She was thrown out by left fielder Farris Strong to end the inning.
“That was my mistake. I thought the ball was through her,” Burns said. “I looked back and she had it in her glove. I went, ‘Oh no.’ I take the full blame for that one.”
North Laurel has not lost since a 5-2 decision at Assumption on April 12. That means a perfect month of May as they advance to the KHSAA State Softball Tournament to face Ashland Blazer (25-4).
“The kids were mentally prepared. They really wanted this game because we put in so many hours since last fall. So much work. So much sweat,” Strong said.