By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
By any measure, it was a heartbreaking end to the season for the North Laurel Lady Jaguars. Their remarkable rally in the last inning trumped by another remarkable rally by Lone Oak.
Yet the most remarkable rally by North Laurel did not take place in Owensboro.
On April 25, North Laurel nearly lost first-year coach Becki Osborne in a traffic accident. They did lose her for the season. The Lady Jaguars had the 13th Region’s best record at the time at 16-5.
North Laurel could have wilted without its head coach. Instead it thrived. It was a hands-on lesson in the adversity you face in life. Sometimes you just have to lace up your shoes and keep going.
The Lady Jaguars would rely on the leadership of assistant coach Rogers Strong. Strong’s six-years with the program provided the stability the team needed in what could have devastated their season. They had only Kristin Fields to provide senior leadership on a team that started two and sometimes three eighth graders.
Yet after Osborne’s accident, all North Laurel did was win. They won their final 16 regular-season games, before sweeping through the 49th District and 13th Region. Then the goal became to win the state tournament.
It seemed a lofty goal by all accounts, but they came closer than most expected.
Maybe a sixth place finish doesn’t sound close to a state title, but we are only talking a couple of runs away from at least getting a chance.
The first state tournament loss was a 1-0 decision to Ryle in eight innings. It’s one of those games that if played again North Laurel would win. It may have been the only game in the tournament they were favored. The underdog role seemed to suit them better.
The final loss ranks among the toughest Team Jaguar has ever faced. It was the Yankees collapse to the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS condensed into one inning.
If you remember the 2004 ALCS, no team had ever come back after losing the first three games in the best-of-seven series. The Red Sox lost the first three games and were trailing 4-3 in the last inning against Mariano Rivera, possibly the best closer in baseball history. Boston won that game in extra innings and went on to win the next three games and the series.
What made the Lady Jaguars final loss so tough came from the ebb and flow of emotions in a matter of minutes.
North Laurel held a 3-2 lead going into the bottom of the sixth inning. Lone Oak rallied to take a 5-3 lead, leaving the Lady Jaguars one last at bat to extend their season. Their character emerged with a five-run inning capped by Blake Johnson’s bases-loaded triple.
North Laurel did not play the bottom of the seventh inning like a team that thought it had already won. They played well and composed, but so did Lone Oak. The Purple Flash scored four runs and won the game with a walk-off double.
Lone Oak went on to beat Greenwood and Boyle County before losing to Mercy in the championship game, a championship game that could have easily been North Laurel. A win over Lone Oak would have also tied this team for the most wins in North Laurel history.
Two one-run losses in their last 25 games sounds like an ending as heartbreaking as a Nicholas Sparks’ novel. It shouldn’t be that way. It should be remember as one of the great performances by a Laurel County team. One day the players will look back and see it the same way.