|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands freshman Brooke Dill makes a play in Saturday's doubleheader. Highlands won both games at Winkler Field to move to 17-7 on the season.|
The Highlands Ladybirds softball team received good pitching, nearly-flawless defense and solid hitting in its two games Saturday at Winkler Field. Highlands downed visiting the Cincinnati Turpin Spartans, 11-1 in six innings before beating the Johnson Central Eagles, 7-1. Defending 9th Region champion Highlands (17-7 overall) has won eight in a row.
"We've started to gel on defense," said Rob Coffey, Highlands Head Coach. "We've been doing extra time on the field here hitting the ball. It's really starting to show. Girls are coming out of their slumps. It's been really fun watching these girls come together as a team. We knew we had the talent and work ethic. It was a matter of putting it together all at once."
Junior pitcher Bailey Spencer picked up the win in both games. In 13 innings, Spencer struck out nine, walked three, gave up 10 hits and allowed just one earned run.
The defense played solid behind her. The Ladybirds made just one error on the afternoon and turned a double play.
Highlands returned its entire infield from last year's record-setting team. But the Ladybirds needed to find three new outfielders after Ashley Grosser and Kendall Turner graduated and right fielder Peyton Leighty decided not to return. But sophomores Kara Fornash, Taylor Baioni and freshman Brooke Dill made plays in the outfield.
"We always back each other up," Fornash said. "We bond a lot and are really close."
Highlands did have to work around an injury for part of the season. Junior shortstop Haley Coffey recently returned to the diamond.
"That threw us off defensively," Coach Coffey said. "We were struggling early trying to find the right girls, the right combination for the girls. Then when we got that figured out, we stopped hitting."
Offensively, Highlands went 29-for-64 for an impressive .453 batting average including nine doubles. Brennah Dutcher went 5-for-7 with three doubles, five runs batted in and three runs scored in both games. Shelby Graybill went 4-for-8 with two doubles and three RBI. Haley Coffey, Dill, Whitney Qullen and Josie Daley added doubles for Highlands.
Highlands set the tone with good first at-bats. The Ladybirds combined to score nine runs in the first inning of both games.
"I think once one person hits the ball well, we all get up to the plate and become more aggressive," Dutcher said. "The pure thought of wanting (another region crown) so much because we got it last year drives our whole team."
Highlands scored four runs in the first inning against Turpin. Quillen led off with a walk, stole second and third and scored when Dutcher reached on an error. After Rachel Gabbard singled to load the bases, Daley singled in pinch-runner Morgan Coffey with Dutcher and Gabbard scoring on an error.
Highlands added another run in the second inning. Dill singled, took second on a ground out and scored when Graybill singled.
The Ladybirds added two more in the fourth. Haley Coffey singled, took second when Graybill singled. Spencer then bunted Haley Coffey and pinch-runner Chloe Jansen up a base. Dutcher singled in Haley Coffey and Jansen scored when Gabbard grounded out.
Turpin scored its run in the fifth inning. But Highlands put the game away with four runs in the sixth inning taking advantage of two Turpin errors in the inning.
Dutcher, Gabbard and Daley had three hits in the game and Graybill had two. Daley and Dutcher had three RBI in the game with Dutcher, Gabbard and Morgan Coffey scoring two runs each.
The first seven batters reached base for Highlands in the second game. Quillen and Haley Coffey singled and Graybill doubled them in. After Spencer singled pinch-runner Jansen to third, Dutcher doubled in Jansen before pinch-runner Morgan Coffey scored on a Gabbard single and Dutcher scored on a fielder's choice.
Highlands added runs in the fourth and fifth innings. Quillen and Haley Coffey led off the fourth with back-to-back doubles. Then in the fifth, Gabbard singled and Jansen ran for her. Dill doubled in Jansen.
Haley Coffey and Gabbard had three hits each for Highlands. Quillen, Graybill and Dutcher had two each for the Ladybirds. Graybill and Dutcher had two RBI each with Quillen and Jansen scoring twice.
The game had some anticipation since last spring. Johnson Central beat Ashland in an elimination game at the state tournament. But the umpires incorrectly ruled Rachelle Fairchild's home run a double denying Johnson Central the 2-1 win that would have set up a game against Highlands. Instead, Ashland eliminated Highlands before losing to Madisonville-North Hopkins.
Fairchild went 1-for-3 in the game. Her twin sister Rebeckah went 3-for-3 with a run scored in the first inning.
Highlands plays the best in the region this week to prepare for the postseason. The Ladybirds take on Conner, Notre Dame and Ryle at home this week.
"We scheduled this on purpose," Coach Coffey said. "We've played a tough schedule all year, but a lot of those big games got rained out. We wanted to see the best going into the tournament. Win or lose, what we're looking for is to gain the experience against the good teams and good pitchers."
Highlands takes on Bishop Brossart on Tuesday. Game time is 5 p.m.