By John Lachmann
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – A team that has prided itself on solid defense and excellent pitching control completely imploded in those areas the first half inning.
Then after falling behind by six runs in that frame, Highlands battled back and held on for an 8-7 win over Notre Dame in the Region 9 final at NKU that ended in truly bizarre fashion.
Adding further to the storyline: This was the Bluebirds’ first-ever regional championship.
“Talking about the game, I mean, holy cow,” Highlands coach Rob Coffey said. “We started with complete nerves taking us over. We have played unbelievable defense, Bailey has pitched unbelievably and we just lost it for half of an inning there. Couldn’t get an out, couldn’t get a big play, just could not get anything to fall our way. We told them when they came in after that inning that they haven’t even batted yet and that we can’t worry about what they do and we need to focus on getting nine runs. Our goal was to finish the game with nine runs, if we win the game, we win the game, if we don’t, we fought back. And they took that to heart and just chipped away.”
The start of the game was a complete disaster for Highlands. The Bluebirds issued two walks, four wild pitches, had a passed ball, a fielding error and a misplayed bunt all before recording the second out.
Pandas senior left fielder Amanda Meagher plated the fourth and fifth runs of the inning with a single through the right side and a wild pitch rounded out the scoring.
“(Pitcher) Bailey (Spencer)’s location and pitching has been unbelievable from the three years I’ve been coaching,” Coffey said. “To see her throw balls against the fence like that, I knew something was up and it’s very hard to watch.”
Down 6-0 before facing one pitch against the two-time defending regional champions was obviously not the way Highlands drew up the game plan.
But junior third baseman Whitney Quillen belted a pitch into the right center field gap for a triple to lead off the bottom of the first. One batter later, she came home on a single up the middle by sophomore catcher Shelby Graybill.
“I can’t tell you how big Whitney Quillen has been when we’ve been challenged,” Coffey said. “She’s done that all year…every triple that she’s probably had this season has been leading off a game after we came in and having a bad inning. And that right there took us from having the wind completely out of our sails to putting us back on the ocean. I told them if we come in here and go 1-2-3, we might be packing it in because (Notre Dame) was rolling. Whitney didn’t let that happen.”
Senior left fielder Kendall Turner singled, and a fielding error scored a courtesy runner one out later to make it 6-2 at the end of the inning that was inspired by Quillen.
“She’s crazy – she’s everywhere,” sophomore shortstop Haley Coffey said. “She’s up with the attitude, so the dugout is up, the hitting is phenomenal and the fielding is phenomenal, she always brings us up.”
Now trailing by four instead of six, Spencer settled down in the circle. She retired the Pandas in order in the second and pitched around a single and a walk in the third.
In the bottom of third, Highlands loaded the bases with one out on a single, a hit batsman and an error. Sophomore first baseman Brennah Dutcher scored one with an RBI infield single, and seventh-grade second baseman Rachel Gabbard followed by hammering a two-strike pitch to the left field fence, plating two and making it 6-5.
“We’re talking about a seventh-grader that has the poise of a senior,” Rob Coffey said. “She has been a blessing to our entire program, as a seventh-grader to be able to step in and fill some shoes that we needed filled, honestly, it’s been an unbelievable roller coaster ride the entire season and she’s been one of those key players that has risen to the occasion. She’s a seventh-grader, I can’t believe it.”
A booted ground ball on the infield pushed across the tying run and it was a new ballgame heading into the fourth.
Spencer continued to hold the potent Notre Dame offense in check. In innings 2 through 6, she allowed just three hits and one walk.
“We had a couple of times we had runners in scoring position and we didn’t come up with any more clutch hits,” Notre Dame coach Joe Stephenson said. “We started chasing the ball a little bit – (Spencer) was moving it out a little further – because we were hitting it early when she was coming in there.”
Most importantly, Spencer did not surrender any more runs in that span.
“We knew we could field it, we just needed to get her to throw some strikes and settle down,” Rob Coffey said. “I knew she would, it was just a question of whether or not we would catch them at the time.”
Pandas junior right-hander Haylee Smith issued her first walk of the night to seventh-grader Haley Coffey start the bottom of the sixth with the score still tied at six, and the rest of game was truly anomalous.
Junior right fielder Payton Leighty laid down
an excellent bunt right in front of the plate, but the throw went to second anyway. The runner was safe, and the ball tricked away from the fielder. The lead runner took off for third and was gunned down easily for the first out.
Quillen followed by hitting into a force play for the second out, and it appeared Notre Dame would escape harm. But Smith unleashed a wild pitch and uncharacteristically walked two more hitters to load the bases.
Next up was Turner, whose plate appearance was the most controversial of the game. She worked a deep count and took an inside pitch that sounded like it made contact with the bat. The umpires huddled and ruled the pitch had hit Turner, pushing across the go-ahead run.
Not surprisingly, the coaches saw the play unfold differently.
“From my point of view, the sound sounded like the bat, but where it hit looked like it hit her,” Rob Coffey said. “So when I checked her – I know the Notre Dame fans aren’t going to want to hear it – but when I checked her she had (a mark) across her wrist. It was the same spot she had gotten hit at earlier in the season and once I saw it I believed that it probably hit her. You know what? Honestly, I hate winning on that because it’s a shame. For anybody to have to lose that game, we should both be able to go on. I’m happy we won but I feel horrible for them.”
Said Stephenson: “(The umpire) said it was too high up on the arm. It was underneath her batting glove – I don’t know how they missed it. Even when she got to first base she took her batting glove off to look at it. It was unfortunate – they just missed it.”
Senior center fielder Ashley Grosser followed with a looping single to right that made it 8-6. But the runner at third was held and the runner at second was halfway between second and third before realizing it, and the Pandas were finally able to record that elusive third out.
Notre Dame would not go away that easily. Seniors first baseman Maria Schaefer and left fielder Amanda Meagher drew walks sandwiched between a 4-6 force out. A routine fly to right reduced the Pandas’ season to one final out.
But the craziness was not over. The runners took off, and rather than addressing the runner at first, the throw went to third, where the runner was safe on a close play. But more importantly it allowed the paramount tying runner to move into scoring position.
That would end up being highly consequential, because on the eighth pitch of her at-bat, senior center fielder Kelsey Michael lined a double down the right field line. The runner on third trotted home, but the potential tying runner missed third base badly, stopped halfway to the plate and retreated to third.
A pop-up behind first finally put an end to the madness with that critical tying run still on third.
“Coming into the regional finals and you’re down six, it’s all about attitude at that point,” Haley Coffey said. “It’s not even about the game anymore – everyone has to have the right attitude or we’re done. And that’s what we did. We came out and we hit the ball, we got two runs on the board, but I think our attitude was phenomenal the rest of the game.”
Highlands’ pilgrimage to the state tournament next week opens at 7 p.m. on June 5 at WKU. The Bluebirds will face Estill County in the first round.
“I can tell you I’ve never been more excited in my life,” Quillen said. “We fought so hard for that win and we had to give everything that we had down to the last out to get this win.”
NOTRE DAME 600-000-1—7 8 3
HIGHLANDS 204-002-X—8 7 2
WP: Spencer. LP: Smith (7 K’s). HITTING LEADERS: H—Quillen 3B; Gabbard 2B, 2 RBI. ND—Jones 2B; Baugh 2-4; Meagher 2-3, 2 RBI; Michael 2B. RECORDS: Highlands 26-11, Notre Dame 28-6.
All-tournament team: Madison Ingle (Dixie Heights), Anna Clements (Holy Cross), Haley Meyers (Newport Central Catholic), Gabby Stewart (St. Henry), Madison Graham (Boone County), Sydney Foster (Boone County), Paige Ellis (Conner), Kayla Thompson (Conner), Kennedy Baugh (Notre Dame), Abby Jones (Notre Dame), Kelsey Michael (Notre Dame), Whitney Quillen (Highlands), Shelby Graybill (Highlands), Bailey Spencer (Highlands).
Most valuable player: Brennah Dutcher (Highlands).