High School Sports

‘That’s a great team that just won a state championship.’ Was it Kentucky’s greatest?

A perfect game.

An imperfect follow-up.

The ultimate finish: perfection.

Male brought an end to the 2018-19 Kentucky high school sports season with a 6-1 victory over Warren East in the KHSAA State Softball Tournament, capping its undefeated run through the commonwealth and winning its first state title Saturday at the University of Kentucky’s John Cropp Stadium.

The Bulldogs dispatched of Boyle County, 4-0, thanks to a perfect outing from junior pitcher Kelsie Houchens on Friday. They then walked off on a wild pitch in the eighth inning of a 2-1 comeback victory over upset-minded Clay County earlier Saturday before putting a coda on their perfect season with another come-from-behind win in the evening.

“That’s a great team that just won a state championship,” Male Coach Josh Bloomer said. “That’s a great team, and we’re not gonna shy away from the hard work. We had a bullet on our back and we wore it. We didn’t care about it, we just had to come out and compete, and we did that, and I’m super proud of my kids and my program.”

Male finished the season with a 39-0 record, becoming the second team in state history to end unblemished after Greenwood did so in 2013. That Greenwood team also owns the state record with 44 consecutive wins.

Where do these Bulldogs rank among the state’s finest? Were they the best to ever win it?

“I’m not gonna say it is, I’m also not gonna say that it’s not,” Bloomer said. “We played an unbelievable schedule. People can say all they want about it, that’s a brutal schedule. We played anybody that wanted to play us, and we’ll do it again. We’ll lock it up and reload for the same schedule next year.”

Neither team put a run up through the first four innings and between them they manufactured a lone baserunner (a two-out single by Warren East’s Lucy Patterson off Houchens’ glove in the game’s first frame). Things turned in the fifth: Katie Gardner, this year’s Miss Softball winner, hit a one-out double for Warren East to end a stretch of 11 straight retired Raiders. Emmah Young soon followed that with a two-out single to move Gardner’s courtesy runner, O’Brien Wilson, who then scored on a fielding error by Male’s Jaelyn Sanders in center field before a foul out.

It took seconds for Male to respond: Jasmine Miller had a double ricochet off the left-field wall to lead off the Bulldogs’ at-bat in the fifth. Sanders made up for her miscue with a double to score Miller. A sac bunt by Megan Lenhart allowed Sanders to score the go-ahead run.

“I knew I needed to do something for my team to help them out,” Sanders said. “… I’m the one that caused the first run, so I knew I needed to do something.”

Warren East mounted another threat in the sixth, leading it off with a pair of singles and a walk to load the bases. Houchens proceeded to deal two strikeouts before forcing a fly out to left field.

“She spins the s--- out of that ball,” Bloomer said of Houchens. “She changes speeds, she changes eye levels. She’s just good, man. … She wants that daggone ball. There’s a lot to be said for somebody just wanting the ball, and she says, ‘Gimme the ball.’ I’ve told her, I’ll ride with her any daggone day.”

Warren East next met an avalanche: Male loaded the bases with two outs before Sanders sent a double into center field, scoring three runs, and then got back home herself on a throwing error. Houchens made quick work of Warren East in the top of the seventh to start the celebration.

Sanders, a junior, was named MVP of this year’s tournament. She was 3-for-8 with seven RBI and three runs scored across the three games.

“Jaelyn Sanders won us a state championship in that game,” Bloomer said. “She was super.”

Josh Moore is in his first year covering the University of Kentucky football team and in his fifth year reporting for the Lexington Herald-Leader, where he’s been employed since 2009. Moore, a Martin County native, graduated from UK with a B.A. in Integrated Strategic Communication and English in 2013. He’s a huge fan of the NBA, Power Rangers and country music.