The first pitch of the Worth/KHSAA State Softball Tournament will be thrown a 6 p.m. EDT Thursday.
Actually, the first four pitches. First-round play begins with four games starting simultaneously at Jack C. Fisher Park in Owensboro, with the next four first-round games set to begin at about 8 p.m. The double-elimination tournament lasts through Saturday.
Bracket: Worth/KHSAA Softball State Tournament
One of the more fascinating teams in this year’s field of 16 is East Carter, which at 34-0 is the state’s lone undefeated team. East Carter earned its first state appearance with a 2-0 win over Rowan County in the 16th Region finals last Wednesday. That came a day after unseating seven-time defending region champion Ashland Blazer from its throne in the semifinals.
Sophomore sensation Montana Fouts, who was named Kentucky’s Gatorade Player of the Year last week, has had a season to remember. The University of Alabama commitment tied the state record of 13 no-hitters in a season set by Ryle’s Kirsten Allen in 2006. Her nine perfect games this year are behind only Allen’s 15 for the most in state history for a career. Fouts brings an ERA of 0.15 into the tournament.
“She was very excited and the best thing about it was all her teammates were excited for her also,” Raiders Coach Derek Calhoun said after she received the Gatorade honor. “ ... She’s very well-deserving of the award. She works six, sometimes seven days a week to get where she’s at right now.”
East Carter’s baseball team won a state title after an improbable come-from-behind victory over Harrison County in 1984, and it remains the school’s only state championship squad. The 2016 softball team is much younger but much more favored than those baseball Raiders, who were district runners-up that season. East Carter has allowed only 11 runs all season and no more than two runs in a single game; the next-fewest runs allowed by a team this season was 37 by Woodford County.
Read more: Former Herald-Leader scribe Mike Fields offered a look back at East Carter’s state-champion baseball team in 2014
North Laurel (2001) is the only Eastern Kentucky team to have won a state softball title.
“We’re going down there to represent the 16th Region. We want to make a good showing,” East Carter Coach Derek Calhoun said. “We feel that there’s four or five teams in this region that can compete with anybody from around the state of Kentucky. I think we have that possibility. ...
“There’s 15 other teams down there that can beat us if we’re not playing well. I think the girls know that.”
East Jess success
East Jessamine, the Raiders’ first-round opponent, won a school-record 36 games en route to its third straight state-tournament bid and fourth overall.
Last season the Jaguars advanced to the second round before Ashland Blazer knocked them into the consolation bracket. They won a game there before bowing out to Mercy and finishing seventh overall.
Jags Coach Tom Hamm expects their matchup with East Carter to be decided by one or two runs, as East Jessamine has a star sophomore pitcher of its own in Hannah James. Reduced pre-tournament nerves could be a difference-maker for East Jesssamine.
“Our senior class, they were on this team as seventh-graders and some of them even started on (East Jessamine’s first state tournament) team in 2011,” Hamm said. “I don’t think the nerves surrounding being there for the first time will affect our girls, so I think that’s an advantage.”
Several Division I schools have reached out to Hamm regarding James ahead of the state tournament.
“My daughter (Haylee) was a pitcher and she was the best to ever play at East Jessamine until Hannah came along,” Hamm said with a laugh. “ ... She’s as good of an athlete that’s ever worn our uniform and I can say that in all certainty.”
McCracken’s repeat bid
McCracken County looks to become the first repeat champion since Greenwood won back-to-back tournaments in 2007 and 2008.
McCracken’s 51 runs allowed are the third-fewest in the state this year, and its 377 runs scored are second only to the 396 plated by Raceland (the mark by the Rams, who lost to East Carter in the first round of region play, is the fourth-most in state history for a single season; McCracken’s is ninth). The Mustangs’ plus-326 is the best run differential in the state.
Those kind of numbers coupled with a 36-2 record against a top-flight schedule kept alive a 29-week streak at the No. 1 spot in the coaches’ poll, a stretch dating back to 2014.
McCracken finished two points ahead of Madisonville in the final poll of the season. The Maroons were responsible for the Mustangs’ only two losses this season, both by one run. McCracken went 9-0 against other teams in the field, including first-round opponent Male.
“If we get the chance to see (Madisonville) in the winners’ bracket, our girls will be ready for that,” Mustangs Coach Tony Hayden said. “ ... Our seven seniors have been the backbone of our program ever since we started as sophomores, and they definitely want to win another state championship before they leave.”
Other things to know
▪ Scott County represents the 11th Region in Owensboro for the eighth time in the last 11 seasons. The Cardinals’ state-title team in 2014 is the only club from the region to win it all.
Kennedy Sullivan is another sophomore ace in the field expected to make a big impact. She boasts a 0.55 ERA.
“Kennedy is solid and she’s been that way all year,” Cards Coach Jeff Portwood told the Herald-Leader last week. “She’s a pretty good weapon to have going into Owensboro.”
Read more: How Scott County reached its fifth straight state tournament Read more: The April round-robin that produced four state-tournament teams
▪ Male, which never reached the state tournament before 2013, is making its fourth straight appearance. The Bulldogs open with McCracken County, to whom they lost 11-3 as part of a four-team round robin at Scott County in April.
▪ Anderson County claimed its fifth tournament appearance with a 12-2 win over Trimble County in the 8th Region finals. The Bearcats went 1-4 against teams in the field, the victory coming against 9th Region winner Highlands to open the season. Bailey Curry, a junior committed to the University of Toledo, has hit a state-record 61 home runs over her career for the Bearcats.
▪ Louisville Holy Cross, Anderson County’s first-round opponent, won the All “A” Classic in May and finished 28-10-1 after starting the season 4-8.
▪ Clark County, which went 7-12 from the beginning of April into mid-May, finished strong and upset 10th Region favorite Harrison County 10-0 to advance to its 11th state tournament.
▪ Johnson Central and Madisonville, who play each other among the first wave of games on Thursday, are both making their third-straight appearance in Owensboro. Madisonville lost only three times but to teams not in the field — Apollo, Owensboro Catholic and Warren East.
▪ This is trip No. 16 for North Laurel, tying a state record held by Owensboro Catholic. The Jaguars open with Estill County, in the field for the fifth straight year and 10th time overall.
▪ Daviess County and Central Hardin, who met in the first round of consolation play a year ago, meet again to start this year’s tournament.
When: Thursday through Saturday
Where: Jack C. Fisher Park in Owensboro
Thursday’s opening-round games
(All times Eastern)
6 p.m.: Madisonville (33-3) vs. Johnson Central (26-14)
6 p.m.: East Jessamine (36-4) vs. East Carter (34-0)
6 p.m.: Highlands (23-10) vs. Clark Co. (19-14)
6 p.m.: Central Hardin (31-8) vs. Daviess Co. (32-7)
8 p.m.: North Laurel (23-12) vs. Estill Co. (22-11)
8 p.m.: Male (29-8) vs. McCracken Co. (36-2)
8 p.m.: Louisville Holy Cross (28-10-1) vs. Anderson Co. (26-9)
8 p.m.: South Warren (25-13) vs. Scott Co. (31-2)