Franklin County High School pitcher Emily Hampton had to be at her best last week.
The pitching and defense at the 11th Region softball tournament were so sharp that no team scored more than five runs in any game, and every game went the full seven innings or beyond.
Hampton proved to be a cut above, allowing just six runs (one unearned) in three games as the Flyers won the region and advanced to this weekend's state tournament in Owensboro.
Franklin County (22-13) will face 14th Region champion Estill County (21-11), at 10 a.m. Friday in the opening round of the double-elimination tournament. It's Franklin County's first state appearance since 2003.
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"It feels like a dream, kind of," Hampton said at practice Monday. " Everybody's really excited for us."
Hampton is just a sophomore but is already accustomed to her role as starter. She played primarily third base last year but pitched sporadically before that. Her first time pitching for Franklin County was in sixth grade. She lasted one inning.
"That definitely helped a whole lot. (I'm) maybe not as nervous now," she said.
Hampton has pitched all but three innings this season for the Flyers. She attributes part of her success to training with personal pitching instructors through the years.
"Lately I've been working with Jodi Chmielewski. She's really been working with my movement. (She) really pushed me," Hampton said. Chmielewski is not on Franklin County's staff but played softball at Oregon State and worked as a pitching coach afterward, including a stint with Kentucky.
Other major contributors for the Flyers have provided support for Hampton offensively, defensively and personally.
"She's awesome," junior outfielder Dana Jarboe said. "... She's worked us out of so many spots. She's so consistent. We have so much faith in her."
Senior catcher Madelyn Brown's position has her working closely with Hampton.
"I think our coaches have faith in us to do what we need to do to get the job done," Brown said.
Hampton and Brown were already friends, Hampton explained, but "this year we've had to make that solid friendship. We've played summer ball together. It makes good bonds with your teammates."
Coach Tracy Spickard said the battery is a good starting point for the team's success.
"They work very well together. They complement one another," she said.
Hampton said her individual goals for this season centered mostly on improving upon last year. She threw a perfect game in the opener, the first of her 13 shutouts, and has a 1.24 ERA with 206 strikeouts.
However, Hampton spoke primarily about the team goals of capturing championships. Though the Flyers lost the district finals to Woodford County, they met their goal of winning the 11th Region and aim now for the ultimate goal of a state title.
"(Last year) we only got to the first round of region," Hampton said. "After that loss, we all said, 'We don't want to do that again next year.' "
Franklin County is 4-for-4 in must-win situations this season. The first one, the 41st District opener against ninth-ranked Western Hills, stands as the most memorable for the Flyers.
"Everyone just said, 'Lay it on the line,' " Hampton recalled of the 6-5 win. "Ever since then, we've been playing really good. We've all played with them (the Western Hills players) our whole lives."
Brown agreed: "I think when we beat Western Hills, that really gave us some confidence. They had beaten us the last two times. Most people didn't expect us to win."
Jarboe said beating the nearby rival proved a lot. "We knew Western Hills was our toughest opponent. It was definitely that game that really got us going."
The Flyers hope to take their timely hitting and reliable pitching and defense from the region tournament into Owensboro on Friday.
"It's going to be tough. It's out there for anybody to grab," Hampton said of the state tournament.
Besides being necessary to advance, Brown said earning the regional championship was a big boost.
"We weren't as confident as we are now. We realize now what we're capable of," she said.