Mercy High School softball coach Josh Bloomerâ€™s credo is simple: Pressure teams until they break.
Last Saturday the No. 4 Jaguars did just that, relentlessly producing at the plate to knock off defending champion and No. 2 Ballard 6-1 and claim the Seventh Region crown at the University of Louisvilleâ€™s Ulmer Stadium.
The victory gave Mercy (32-8) its seventh regional title in 10 years and punched its ticket to the 16-team double-elimination state tournament that gets underway this week at Jack C. Fisher Park in Owensboro.
The Jaguars will take on Sixth Region champ Bullitt East in the first round Thursday at 7 p.m. (CST). Mercy was 2-0 against the Chargers in the regular season.
Next season the Jaguars will move to the Sixth Region and Bloomer said that going out on top in the Seventh was important. â€œWe have owned this region for the last 10 years,â€ he said. â€œNobody took it from us, somebody else just gets a chance to try to go win it now.â€
While the rivalry between Ballard and Mercy may be salty, the Jaguars work at the plate and in the pitcherâ€™s circle was decidedly sweet.
Senior starter JJ Francis allowed just one run on two hits and struck out two in four innings before freshman lefty Leigh Ellen Thomas entered in relief. Thomas held the Bruins scoreless the rest of the way and tallied three Kâ€™s of her own. Ballard, which averaged 7.5 runs per game, was held to one run or fewer for only the fourth time this season.
Leading 2-1, the Jaguars blew it open in the top of the seventh. The bases were loaded with two outs when senior Morgan Ellington singled to right to drive in a run. Morgan Meyer, who was on second, scored on the play as well when Bruins catcher Alexis Hull threw to second to try and pick off a runner.
â€œI just went up there relaxed,â€ said Ellington. â€œI knew that I needed to step up for my team and be a leader so thatâ€™s what I did.â€
A single up the middle from Francis scored two more and made it 6-1. Mercy piled up 11 hits on the day.
â€œWe had our opportunities to blow this wide open and we didnâ€™t get the breaks,â€ said Ballard coach Alan Jones, whose side loaded the bases in the fifth but couldnâ€™t bring anyone across. The Bruins finished their season with a record of 34-5-1.
No. 3 Greenwood is the highest-ranked team in the state tournament after knocking off defending champion and No. 1-ranked Allen-County Scottsville 4-3 in the Fourth Region final. Other Top-10 teams that advanced are No. 5 Christian County, No. 7 Green County, No. 8 Scott County, No. 9 Owensboro Catholic and No. 10 North Laurel.
Finals of the winnerâ€™s and losersâ€™ brackets will be Saturday at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., respectively. The championship game will follow at 1 p.m.
Sixth Region Softball
No. 24 Bullitt East (28-9) exploded for five runs in the sixth inning and beat Butler 8-2 to earn its first trip to the fastpitch softball state tournament. Senior pitcher Jamie Lutes recorded four strikeouts and allowed just two runs in seven innings for the Lady Chargers.
7th Region Baseball
The St. Xavier baseball team first endured a storm from Mother Nature, then a barrage of offense from Male, before mounting a late-inning comeback to claim a 6-5 win and its second straight Seventh Region title at the University of Louisvilleâ€™s Jim Patterson Stadium.
With the third-ranked Tigers (29-11) leading 3-0 in the bottom of the third last Thursday, the championship game was suspended due to rain and lightning. When play resumed Friday evening with St. X ace Colin McFarland on the mound, No. 7 Male (28-11) unleashed a two-inning barrage of offense that consisted of seven hits, five runs and a palpable swing in momentum.
â€œThey took the wind out of our sails when they put those runs on the board,â€ said first-year St. X coach Andy Porta.
In the top of the fifth with the Bulldogs on top 4-3 and runners on the corners, Porta called on junior lefty Ben Britt for relief.
The unflappable junior with an 8-0 record has quietly put together a remarkable season that includes wins over Lexington Christian, Danville and a regional semifinal win over KCD in which he struck out 10.
After giving up a pair of singles and a run (credited to McFarland) in the fifth, Britt shut out the Bulldogs over the final two innings and struck out four.
â€œHeâ€™s been a rock for us whether itâ€™s out of the pen or getting starts,â€ Porta said about Britt. â€œHeâ€™s getting everything he deserves.â€
In the bottom of the sixth, the Tigers got off the ropes. Josh Osborne drew a walk from Male pitcher Trey Simpson, and then Andrew McCormick hit a ball to near the warning track in center field that was dropped. Osborne scored on the play and McCormick advanced to third.
After Alex Mercer struck out and Zach Montgomery was hit by a pitch, Conrad Ulmerâ€™s sacrifice fly to center scored McCormick and tied the game at 5-5. Nate Stemle singled to keep the inning alive and, like he has all postseason, Jake Johnson came through with a crucial hit.
The senior smacked a single into right field, scoring pinch-runner David Gahafer and giving the Tigers their final margin.
â€œItâ€™s tournament time and everybodyâ€™s got to step up,â€ said Johnson, who went 7 for 7 at the plate with 8 RBI in the regional semifinal and final. â€œWe want to get to the state championship and we feel like we have a chance this year.â€
St. X is the only team in the Top 10 that advanced to the Kentucky National Insurance/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament, which kicked off earlier this week at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington. Other ranked teams are No. 15 Woodford County, No. 17 Pleasure Ridge Park and No. 24 Calloway County. Fifth Region winner and 12th-ranked Central Hardin is the defending champion.
Semifinals are slated for Friday at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. with the championship game to be held Saturday at 7 p.m.
Sixth Region Baseball
Senior hurler Andrew Bramley (6-3) struck out 11 and No. 17 Pleasure Ridge Park (29-11) took advantage of six Bullitt East errors to beat the No. 18 Chargers (34-7) 3-0 for their second straight Sixth Region title last Friday.
- Richard Gatewood has been named head basketball coach at Moore. The 27-year-old Western High graduate replaces Shedrick Jones, who left the program after one season to take the same position at Southern. The Mustangs were 28-5 last season but will return only one starter.
- Butler senior-to-be Tretez Kinnaird crushed the field and won the 800-meter run at the Music City Distance Carnival in Nashville, Tenn., on June 2. His time of 1:49.31 was a meet record and the third-fastest 800 in the country this year among high school runners.
Contact columnist Chris Cahill at email@example.com.