|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior Shelby Graybill blasts a home run in the state tournament last year. Graybill is one of six returning starters in the infield for the defending 9th Region champions.|
The Highlands Ladybirds softball team hopes to give people more reason to look the program positively after last year's historic postseason run. Highlands finished a school-record 27-13 overall, won the 36th District Tournament and captured the program's first-ever 9th Region championship with a thrilling 8-7 comeback over the Notre Dame Pandas.
Once in Owensboro, the Ladybirds were not done. They bested Estill County, 4-1 for the first-ever state tournament win for a school-record 19th straight win before losing to Ownesboro Apollo (12-2) and Ashland Blazer (12-0) in five innings.
"We've been talking about becoming a target now and not in an arrogant way," said Rob Coffey, third-year Highlands Head Coach. "We've been telling them that sometimes it's easier to get there than it is to stay there. These girls are motivated to not just get back to the state tournament, but make a run in the state tournament. They got a little taste of it and got the bitter side of it at the end. But they're a confident group."
Highlands returns all but three players from that team in Ashley Grosser, Kendall Turner and Payton Leighty. Grosser and Turner graduated and Leighty decided not to return for her senior year. The tough part about that is those three started in the outfield leaving some holes that need to be filled.
But Coffey said there will be six players competing for those spots. They are sophomores Taylor Baioni, Kara Fornash, freshmen Josie Daley, Brooke Dill, Emily Yeager and eighth-grader Morgan Coffey.
Highlands does return the solid group in the infield led by junior catcher Shelby Graybill. The Bowling Green State (Ohio) committ batted an astounding .540 with 10 home runs, 22 doubles, a triple, 59 runs batted in and 37 run scored.
The Ladybirds should again see senior third baseman Whitney Quillen (.365, 13 stolen bases, six triples, 45 runs scored last year) and junior shortstop Haley Coffey (.311. 17 walks, six doubles, one triple, 40 runs scored, five stolen bases) at the top of the line-up. Junior Brennah Dutcher (.457, two home runs, eight doubles, two triples, 52 RBI) and eighth grader Rachel Gabbard (.290, three doubles, one triple, 20 RBI) return to first and second base respectively. The infield has been working tightening things up.
"Our infield is hoping to stay solid and limit our errors," Quillen said. "About two years ago, we were making a lot of stupid errors like throwing the ball when it's not necessary. Ever since we cut those down, it's been making a huge difference. Instead of losing a game by two runs, we are winning games by two runs."
Junior pitcher Bailey Spencer also returns along with freshman back-up Miranda Mason. Spencer finished 22-8 last year with a 2.7 Earned-Run Average and 121 strikeouts in 172 innings pitched. Spencer is hoping to hit 62 miles per hour on the radar gun, but Coach Coffey said both have been working with pitching coach Michelle Caoetti. Caoetti pitches at the University of Connecticut before serving at Northern Kentucky University for two years as an assistant. Mason hopes to keep Spencer rested for the big games.
"I've been doing a ton of speed drills so I can get my velocity up," Spencer said. "Then I'm trying to hit more spots with my curve and make that one of my main pitches. I hope to be pretty dominant this season."
As of now, seven players could see action on both the varsity and junior varsity to add to the Highlands depth. The other two are outfielders in eighth grader Chloe Jansen and seventh-grader Abby Rust. Coach Coffey said some younger players hired hitting coaches in the offseason.
"We're going to try to mix power with speed. Some of these younger players may not be as consistent at the plate," Coach Coffey said. "We want to get as many on and let the big boppers smash them in."
Part of the success of last year's team stemmed from a No-Tolerance rule that remains in effect. Players came out of the game if they committed a mental error that the staff consistently covered in practice.
Aside from Caoetti, Highlands welcomes three new assistants. Former Bishop Brossart player Lindsay Griffith joins the staff as a junior varsity assistant with 2011 Highlands graduate Sydney Groneck and former Scott player Ally Bradley coaching the freshmen.
Highlands is scheduled to open the season March 16 at Bellevue. Game time is 5 p.m.