JACKSON — If they kept statewide statistics for middle school softball, Taylor Lovaas could be leading Kentucky in two substantial categories.
"Walk-off home runs." Taylor hits one at pretty much every game the Jackson City Middle School Lady Tigers play.
Smiles created. Hard to imagine any other sports figure in the commonwealth produces more good feelings than Taylor.
"It's amazing what she does," said Elizabeth McIntosh, one of Taylor's teammates. "We love her to death."
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In a sense, the story begins when Taylor was 4 months old. Her mom, Pam Lovaas, took her to the emergency room because of a respiratory problem.
The attending physician looked at Taylor and asked Pam when she'd been diagnosed.
Diagnosed with what? Pam replied.
Down syndrome, the doctor said.
Pam had suspected something was different about the youngest of her four children, her only daughter, from birth. Still, finding out your child suffers from a genetic disorder that causes lifelong intellectual disability and developmental delays is not something for which a parent is prepared.
"I was pretty scared," Pam said. "I'm a single mother with Taylor. I just didn't know, didn't know what was in store for us."
After some reflection, what was in store for Taylor was a mother determined her daughter live as "normal" a life as possible.
When Taylor was 5, Pam moved from Lexington to Breathitt County to care for her ailing mother. In Jackson, population of some 2,170, they found "a real good environment for Taylor," Pam said.
Even in a town where everyone knows your name, there are challenges. Taylor talks, but it takes time being around her to be able to decipher what she's saying. "Taylor's communication, one of her biggest barriers with other people is probably their ability to understand her," Pam said.
At Jackson City Middle School, sports has helped Taylor break through such walls.
Taylor's "home run" binge started last year.
Coaches who had worked with Taylor with the middle school basketball team took over the softball program. They invited Taylor to join the softball team.
Sarah Trent, a media specialist (librarian) at Jackson City Middle, coached the school's softball team in 2014.
"We wanted to get Taylor involved, but it is fast pitch. We were worried about whether she'd get hurt," Trent said.
After much thought, an idea formed. Taylor would take an "at-bat" after the official game ended. Initially, the plan was for Taylor to hit the ball and get to run to first base.
Before Jackson City was to face Sebastian Middle School from the rival Breathitt County school system, Trent approached the opposing coach to explain what she envisioned. She asked if Sebastian would be willing to leave its defense on the field after the final out so Taylor could have as authentic an experience as possible.
What actually happened turned out to be better than anyone had imagined. Not only did Sebastian stay on the field, once Taylor hit the ball, the defenders kept overthrowing bases on purpose. Taylor ran and ran and ran, until she made it home.
She'd hit her first "home run."
"I wrote this in my journal, seeing Taylor's smile after she rounded the bases that night, that might be the highlight of my coaching career," Trent said. "I still feel that way."
Taylor's "at-bat" became a part of every Jackson City game.
Before this season, Pam Lovaas called Brenda Tincher, the current softball coach, to ask if Taylor could again play and still hit her "home runs."
"I said 'Of course,'" Tincher said. "When I'm coaching third base, I try to explain the situation to the opposing coach and ask if he'll leave his defense on the field after the game. But most of the teams we play, they already know about Taylor."
After Taylor hit her "home run" against Powell County Middle, some of the Powell players took selfies with her. Others friended her on Facebook.
"We participate because it makes Taylor feel good," Powell Middle Coach Shane Trent said. "I think seeing what this means to her, it's been a good lesson for our girls."
Being on the softball team has helped Taylor achieve what any middle school kid craves: A sense of belonging.
"She wears her uniform to school on game days," Sarah Trent said. "She asks the other students if they are coming out to see her play. You really see a difference (in her) in school."
Tony Turner, the Jackson City Middle School softball assistant coach, has two daughters, Halley and Riley, on the team with Taylor. Talk with him, you get the impression Taylor may not be the one who benefits most from her softball participation.
"I'm the dad who sits on YouTube analyzing bat swings all the time. I get wrapped up in the winning and losing," he said. "But, when (Taylor) does her thing, all that goes away. This is supposed to be about fun; that child reminds us all of that."
Last Wednesday, one day after Taylor's 15th birthday, the most consistent "home run hitter" in Kentucky softball was back in the batter's box at Jackson's Kiwanis Park.
At the end of a Jackson City victory over Sebastian Middle School, a cry of "Taylor, get your helmet!" rang out in the home dugout. As Taylor reached the plate, what had been a sleepy crowd came to life. C'mon Taylor! Go Taylor!
When Taylor popped the ball up behind third base, it may technically have landed in foul territory. The umpire ruled it fair.
When Taylor neared second base, the third baseman may have thrown the ball to first instead.
With Taylor chugging toward home, the first baseman may have thrown the ball back to third on an arc so high that Willie Cauley-Stein on a trampoline could not have caught it.
What mattered was when Taylor crossed home plate, the umpire called her safe. The crowd's cheers were the loudest of the night.
Everyone in the place was smiling, Taylor most of all.