(Cover photo: The Holy Cross Cougars celebrate after beating Fern Creek 6-5 in 10 innings in the Sixth Region final. Credit: Conor Revell)
Fern Creek’s softball team had been the Cinderella darlings of the Sixth Region Tournament and it appeared Holy Cross was going to become their next victim.
But after trailing by four runs, the Cougars mounted a comeback and defeated Fern Creek 6-5 in 10 innings Friday night at the University of Louisville’s Ulmer Stadium to win their first regional fast-pitch softball title.
“It was a team effort. Everybody realized that we had a shaky start,” Holy Cross head coach Tony Young said. “We gave them a head start and we made a lot of mistakes. We collectively grabbed ourselves and we got to where we needed to go.”
Ally Klein ended the game with a sacrifice fly that scored Maddi Gailor in the bottom of the 10th.
“The ball was outside and I knew that I had been having a bad game,” Klein said. “My team was always there to pick me up. I saw the outside pitch and I just drove it.”
Gailor had gotten on base with a single, moved to second on a passed ball and advanced to third on Jennifer Peffley’s sacrifice bunt before Klein launched the ball into right field.
“Maddi Gailor is a phenomenal ballplayer as a freshman,” Young said. “Obviously, she’s going to read that her coach said that, but there’s still an enormous amount of room for her to improve. If she continues to improve over her next three years, she’s going to be a name everybody knows in the state. We never want to shy away from our style of being team ballplayers, but in that system they’re really going to have an opportunity to be known.”
Things looked bleak for the Cougars (28-10-1) after two full innings, though. The Tigers (15-20) scored a run in the first inning and three in the second due to two errors and several defensive miscues.
Down 4-0 in the fourth, Holy Cross started to figure out Fern Creek ace Jennifer Leonhardt. Shelby Atzinger led off with a triple and Dakota Young chased her home with a blast over the left-field fence, her second home run in as many games.
Young, the coach’s daughter, said she connected on an inside pitch. “She was pitching outside and high,” Young added. “I’m a better inside pitch hitter. I saw her throw it down the middle and I just took advantage of it.”
The Cougars scored three runs with two outs in the fifth. Gailor led off with a single, stole second and raced home when Fern Creek catcher Kayte Blandford’s throw to second base ended up in center field.
Peffley and Klein followed with back-to-back singles and scored on Atzinger’s double to put the Cougars up 5-4.
Fern Creek tied it in the sixth. Sierra Conforti singled and scored all the way from first when Taylor Parks hit a grounder to third and Klein overthrew first base.
That set the stage for a thriller as both teams had chances during the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
Leonhardt pitched a complete game for the Tigers and gave up nine hits. Going into the game, she had allowed only one run in her first four games of the postseason.
Atzinger led the way for the Cougars with four hits and two RBIs. Gailor had two hits and scored twice, Peffley had a pair of hits and Young had one hit and two RBIs.
Kameron Bowling started for Holy Cross and threw the first three-plus innings before Allie Just came in for the next two-plus innings. Then Bowling returned to the circle and finished up.
“It was a matchup thing,” Cocach Young said. “It was our intent to do that the entire game. Obviously, the rocky start made it look like that we were pulling Kameron out because she wasn’t pitching well. But at the end of the day it wasn’t because they were hitting her hard, it was because we weren’t helping her out defensively. It was also an opportunity to bring in a senior pitcher and bring a little bit of calm to the storm. We’ve had that 1-2 punch all year.”
Bowling wound up allowing four runs and seven hits while striking out three in eight innings.
For Tony Young, the first part of the process is complete after the Cougars lost in the regional semifinals his first year as coach and in the regional final last year.
“I just want to thank the administration for giving me the job,” Young said. “And I want to thank the parents for believing in me so that all the kids buy into the system and getting this program to where we’re at now.”
Holy Cross advances to the Worth/KHSAA State Softball Tournament in Owensboro and will play Anderson County in the first round at 8 p.m. EDT Thursday.