(Cover photo: Male head softball coach Josh Bloomer guiding his team as they went to defeat Eastern 5-4 for the Seventh Region title on June 3, 2016. Credit: Sam Draut)
The No. 7-ranked Louisville Male High softball team is headed to the 2016 Worth/KHSAA State Softball Tournament, being held June 9-11 at Jack C. Fisher Park in Owensboro, Ky. Male (29-8) will begin in the double elimination tournament with a match up against No.1-ranked and 2015 state champion McCracken County (36-2).
How ironic, considering the two were the only teams left standing as they squared off in the championship game last year.
“We have the utmost respect for McCracken County,” said Male head coach Josh Bloomer. “They’ve done a great job – defending state champions. They’re very talented, but we don’t fear them… We’re gonna go. We’re gonna play our game. Our kids are excited about the challenge. We’re looking forward to it.”
Certainly, Male is considered the underdog as they head into the June 9 game, scheduled for 8 p.m. ET. Not only was the loss last year a hard-fought battle, but Male also struggled against McCracken County earlier this season, falling 3-11 in the Scott County Round Robin tournament on April 16. Male’s starting pitcher Olivia Suski said her team played tight and timid that game, coupled with her self-proclaimed, sub-par pitching performance.
But all of that is behind them. Knabbing their fourth-straight regional title with a 5-4 win over Eastern last week, the girls are heading into the tournament with high heads and high shoulders.
“I’m really excited,” Suski calmly said with a smile. “I’m kinda glad we got them (McCracken County) first round…. I think we’re gonna come out more confident and hopefully be sharp.”
“I think we’re confident,” added Danielle Walls, junior catcher, who believes that previous loss this season has actually prepared her team for tomorrow. “We want to play them first round and put them back on their heels a little bit.”
In the regional win over Eastern, Male made a surprise comeback to secure the title. Eastern dragged the Bulldogs 4-0 until Male scored all five of their runs in the bottom of the sixth inning. What made that win special was that the Bulldogs fought to overcome a few mental and emotional blocks entering the game after having defeated the No. 6-ranked Ballard 3-2 in the semifinals. What they assumed would be an easy win became a true fight for the trophy.
Bloomer settled his team and got them to focus on it just being “a” game, not a “big game” – not allowing the fans and the grandiose atmosphere of Ulmer Stadium make it more than what it really is.
“It’s a pitcher that you’ve got to go [against]. Go find a way to barrel up,” is what Bloomer told his team.
And it’s playing like that, that tenacity to not retreat, that should assist Male in the tournament. Not to mention, the success of Bloomer as a coach is certainly an asset. Although boasting a roster full of talent, the Bulldogs carry the sharp eyes, knowledgeable wit, and resume depth of Bloomer. In addition to winning four regional titles in the last four years with Male, including his first year as head coach there (2013), Bloomer won the Seventh Region championship as head coach of Mercy Academy five times in the last seven years (2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012). That also includes his first year as head coach at Mercy (2006).
“It’s not easy to win the region,” said Bloomer, noting his most recent win as a coach with Male last week. “It’s hard work. It’s toughness. You gotta get some breaks, and you gotta make some breaks for yourself, and we’ve been fortunate to do that now four years in a row, so it’s a credit to the kids that I’ve been coaching.”
This is Tony Hayden’s third time taking McCracken County to the state tournament as head coach. The Lady Mustangs have a deep roster with girls who have a lot of speed and athleticism. It is reflective of a team that has only lost two games this season (both to Madisonville-North Hopkins) playing a competitive schedule.
Catcher Bailey Vick holds a 0.507 batting average, the third-best on the team, and has 54 runs and 30 stolen bases on the season. Kalli Harris, Abby Shoulders, and Tori Humphries are other standouts.
Bloomer said his team will have to minimize errors and play sharp defense as two keys to winning. Male third baseman Bayleigh Masterson will be on the lookout for McCracken County’s solid batting.
“They have a lot of left-handed hitters,” said Masterson. “Their full first five batters are slappers, so I’m excited to go against them.”
“I think our pitches will be a lot more efficient,” added Walls. “… I think we’ll come out fresher and we’ll have more confidence defensively. We know what they’ve done the last few times, so we’ll be able to adjust our defense in certain directions, so I think we’ll be good.”
Suski echoed that, stating that she is confident she knows what to throw the Lady Mustangs this time around. Suski is 20-5 with a 2.05 ERA on the season.
McCracken County shuffles between three strong pitchers: Audrey Dodd (17-0, 0.56 ERA, 118 strikeouts), Hannah Ridolfi (10-1) and Jenny Chapman (9-1). Because of their versatility in pitching, Male will have to be able to make quick adjustments on offense depending on which pitcher they face.
Male must also have timely hitting, being able to take advantage of scoring opportunities. Bayleigh Masterson is one of Male’s best hitters, batting a 0.389 with 18 runs, three home runs, and 24 RBIs.
“I’m really excited to go out there and play them,” said Masterson. “It’s gonna be a really great game and I can’t wait to go up against their pitchers.”
Walls and Suski combine for eight home runs, 24 runs, and 51 RBIs. Alyssa Case and Madison McCoy add four home runs and 20 RBIs a piece.
Most importantly, Bloomer hopes his team will play without worry of failing.
“We’re gonna play aggressive,” he stated. “We’re gonna do the things that are Male softball.”
The winner of the Male/McCracken County game will play the North Laurel/Estill County winner on June 10 at 10 a.m. ET. The loser will be placed in the losers’ bracket and will have one more chance to continue in the tournament with a 12 p.m. ET game on June 10.
“We want to finish it,” Masterson firmly stated. “We were so close last year. I think because we got a taste of what it’s like, we really want it bad this year, so we’re excited to go out there.”
“That game alone, win or lose, doesn’t end our season or crown us state champions,” added Bloomer on the opening-round game of the double elimination tournament. “We’ve gotta take it one at a time. It’s very, very hard to win a state championship, and so we’re just gonna focus on that game and come out, work to get better, and go compete for seven innings. And if they do that, whatever happens, we’re gonna be okay with it.”