|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Whitney Quillen connects for one of her four hits in the 9th Region Softball championship game Thursday against Notre Dame.|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior shortstop Haley Coffey (bottom) and Notre Dame left fielder Lindsey Meier (top) collide in the top of the fifth while Coffey tried to grab a ground ball.|
The Highlands Ladybirds came into 2015 hoping to repeat as 9th Region Softball champions. Highlands stood six outs from returning to Owensboro in control with a 3-0 advantage entering the sixth inning Thursday at Northern Kentucky University.
But the Ladybirds could not finish the deal in the last two innings. Notre Dame cut the lead to 3-2 in the sixth then scored three more times in the seventh before holding on for a 5-4 upset. The Pandas will make their second appearance in the title game in three years after the Ladybirds edged them, 8-7 in last year's title game.
"I felt we lost focus in the sixth inning when they scored a couple runs. I'm not sure why," said Rob Coffey, Highlands Head Coach. "They led off with a bunt. We drilled it in them. We missed a cutoff that could have stopped a run at the plate. All kudos goes to Notre Dame. Their staff coached a whale of a game."
Highlands finished 24-9 on the season winning 15 of its last 17 games and had gone 28-2 in May of this year and last year. But those two losses came at the hands of the rival Pandas. Notre Dame won at Fort Thomas, 4-3 on May 14.
Both teams had 12 hits. But Notre Dame strung seven of them together in the final two innings.
Highlands junior pitcher Bailey Spencer and Notre Dame senior Haylee Smith went the distance. Smith struck out nine and walked three with Spencer striking out three and walking just one.
"I can't say enough about Haylee (Smith)," Coach Coffey said. "I'm glad that's the last game I have to see her. If there is good, that's it. Our team made a good run at a champion on the mound. We had them where we wanted them. We just didn't execute in the end."
Highlands senior third baseman Whitney Quillen had an outstanding game going 4-for-4. She doubled and scored once to go with two stolen bases. Teammates Josie Daley and Spencer had two hits each.
Smith also hit 4-for-4 and scored once. But Alecia Radford, Angela Huston and Cori Ludanyi had clutch hits. Huston had three runs batted in and Ludanyi had two.
Both teams left nearly the same number of players on base. Highlands left 10 on and Notre Dame had nine.
The rally in the sixth started when Radford singled and Huston doubled her home. Ludanyi then doubled Huston home. But Spencer retired the next three Pandas to preserve the lead at 3-2.
But the Pandas saw Kennedy Baugh and Smith single to lead off the seventh inning and Gabby Miller bunted them over. Radford then recorded an infield single to load the bases. That's when Radford doubled Baugh and Smith in to give Notre Dame the 4-3 lead before Ludanyi grounded out to second to score Radford.
Highlands did not go quietly in the seventh inning. Spencer and Brennah Dutcher singled before Rachel Gabbard flew out. Daley followed with a single to tie the game before Kara Fornash grounded out to score pinch-runner Chloe Jansen. But Smith then got Brooke Dill to ground out to end the game.
Highlands took the lead at 1-0 in the bottom of the third. Graybill singled, stole second, took third on a Notre Dame throwing error and scored on another one.
The Ladybirds took advantage of three more Panda errors in the same sequence to go up 2-0. Fornash laid down a bunt single then scored all the way on those errors.
Quillen scored later in the fourth to put Highlands up 3-0. She doubled, stole third and scored when Spencer singled.
"I think we dug in hard and fought as a team so I'm really proud of them," Quillen said. "I hope they remember this feeling and go out there and get it done because I don't want to see this happen to them next year. They're too good for it to happen to them."
Highlands does return everyone but Quillen next year. Quillen will take her talents to nearby Thomas More.
"It's hard to watch my senior not get a (region) championship," Coach Coffey said.
The returning players on the infield in addition to catcher Shelby Graybill and Spencer will have at least two years of starting experience. The outfielders of Fornash, Dill and Taylor Baioni be a year older.
9th Region Softball Championship Game
at Northern Kentucky University:
Teams: R H E
Notre Dame (26-6) 000 003 2 -- 5 12 1
Highlands (24-9) 001 200 1 -- 4 12 6
Highlands Leading Hitters:
Whitney Quillen, 4-for-4, Double, Run scored.
Bailey Spencer, 2-for-3, Walk, RBI.
Josie Daley, 2-for-4.
IP K BB H R ER
Bailey Spencer (L) 7 3 1 12 5 5