Photo slideshow: Scott County defeats Boyle County 1-0
It almost doesn’t seem fair to suggest that the Scott County softball team is mounting a state title defense in 2019. Most of the girls who played starring roles in that championship are long gone.
Ten seniors from last year’s squad — the third in school history to win a KHSAA championship — walked through graduation about two weeks before that title was won. This year’s roster boasts only three — Carly Oliver, Cameryn Sims and Alyssa Woolums — and among them only Oliver and Sims have experienced state-level competition; Oliver started at second base in all five of last year’s state-tournament games while Sims was deployed as a pinch runner.
Woolums is now starting in a prime position, catcher, while Oliver has moved to shortstop, succeeding Hannah Davis, now a freshman at the University of Kentucky. Sims has taken over for Oliver at second.
Junior Savannah Merriman and sophomore Nani Valencia, who shared duties at third base and designated player throughout last year’s tournament run, now firmly anchor the corners of the infield — Merriman at third, Valencia at first, where her sister Princess thrived.
New faces are plentiful in the field and at the plate, but the expectations remain steady for a program that’s in a class of its own in central Kentucky: not just reaching state, but winning it.
“It’s a lot of expectations that we have to embrace because people expect a lot out of us. They gave us that respect again this year, we’re top five right now so we have to hold up to that,” Oliver said. “ ... Of course we’re not gonna expect anything short of a state championship. We just need to take it one game at a time, for sure.”
Kennedy Sullivan, a four-year starter in the circle who led the Cardinals to three state appearances and two championships, is now Western Kentucky University’s ace as a freshman. Junior Katlyn Mullins — who pitched eight relief innings and faced 39 batters last year — is tasked not only with helping Scott County get back to glory, but doing so while following one of the school’s all-time athletes.
Head coach Jeff Portwood thinks by the end of the season Mullins — and the host of new faces behind her on defense — will have played in enough meaningful games that it will make up for their lack of experience.
Certainly, no one is going to pull punches against the fledgling Cardinals, who are 6-3 and undefeated against Kentucky foes headed into a 42nd District bout at Henry Clay on Thursday.
“The bull’s-eye just gets bigger, and they know that. It’s tough on them. It is what is is,” Portwood said. “I kind of told ’em at the beginning of the year, ‘Y’all brought it upon yourselves.’ So we’ve gotta deal with that and learn how to play with that kind of pressure on our back. Each and every night we come out here, it’s gonna be that way.”
Mullins and Oliver both credited team chemistry as a factor that’s helped ease the program’s transition. Scott County’s most recent outing ended with a 1-0 victory in Danville over Boyle County, another top squad expected to make its own repeat trip to state. That came on the heels of a 1-3 stretch suffered during the Cardinals’ annual trip to Tennessee, which was followed by a nine-day layoff.
A less cohesive group might have suffered after having so long to dwell on a string of defeats.
“This is one of the best team bonds I’ve seen,” Mullins said. “Just how much we get along and how close we are, that’s what keeps us in games and what keeps us pushing and cheering for each other so much.”
It’s a credit to the Cardinals’ development program that they’re ranked so highly — they were fifth in the most recent coaches poll — despite losing so much talent. A pitcher like Mullins, who’s committed to the University of Pikeville, might have started for 90 percent of Kentucky’s softball-playing schools as a freshman. Instead she was able to get reps on the junior varsity circuit while tutoring under a superstar.
“We were so loaded that people didn’t get the opportunities that they would have gotten somewhere else maybe,” Oliver said, “but this year they’ve stepped up and I’m really proud of ’em.”