(Cover photo: Holy Cross celebrating a run in their 6-5 win over Fern Creek for the Sixth Region championship on June 3, 2016. Credit: Sam Draut)
The Holy Cross softball program has made a ton of strides over the past seven seasons but didn’t start seeing real success until Tony Young arrived as head coach three years ago.
Since Young took over in 2014, the Cougars have won two All “A” State titles, was runner up once in the All “A,” and won the KHSAA Sixth Region for the first time in school history last Friday.
“Everybody said I was crazy for coming to Holy Cross when I said I was taking a job in Kentucky because I said I wanted to win a state championship,” Young, a former assistant coach at North Harrison (Ind.), said. “People told me that I was choosing a school that has never gotten out of the region, but I said ‘We’re going to win the region. We’re going to go over there and build it the right way.’ Now we have our first opportunity.”
But the transformation didn’t happen overnight.
The Cougars were runners up in the All “A” State Tournament in his first season and saw their season end in the Sixth Region semifinals.
In his second season, Young’s team won the All “A” State Tournament and made it to the Sixth Region championship game before being eliminated.
However, the Cougars finally completed the two goals Young wanted to accomplish in his third season – that was to win the All “A” State title and then to win the Sixth Region title.
“We’re a selfless team,” star shortstop Shelby Atzinger said. “We don’t really care about ourselves. If we don’t get a hit, we actually shake it off because we have teammates that are able to pick us back up. That’s a huge factor this season. Previous years, there were players that couldn’t shake it off and you couldn’t pick them back up. We have a group of girls that are team players this year.”
It all starts with Atzinger and fellow seniors Allie Just and Natalie Bodenbender.
“They’re different in their own ways,” Young said. “Shelby is the vocal leader; AJ is the quiet leader, but the kids look up to those two and Natalie. She (Bodenbender) is behind the plate and we have taught her how to be a catcher these last few years. We told her she had to be the quarterback of the team. Having those three have helped a lot.”
It’s an accomplishment for the small Catholic high school located on Dixie Highway that only has 241 students as they will be the smallest school in the Worth/KHSAA State Softball Tournament.
It’s not even close. Estill County is the next smallest with 719 students and East Carter is the third smallest with 789 students.
Other than Highlands with 993 students, the other 12 schools have at least 1,000 students, and six have at least 1,600 students.
Holy Cross has gotten there playing as a team.
Despite facing a 4-0 hole in the Sixth Region title game, the Cougars (28-10-1) rallied back and defeated Fern Creek 6-5 in 10 innings.
Without the team motto, Fern Creek might be in their spot.
You have freshman center fielder Maddi Gailor (.395, 11 RBIs, and 15 stolen bases) in the leadoff spot who is dangerous with her speed. She is questionable for the state tournament after hearing a pop in her knee as she scored the winning run in the regional final.
Junior right fielder Jennifer Peffley (.514, 15 RBIs, and 27 stolen bases) is a transfer from Indiana and was named Sixth Region Player of the Year.
“This team has bonded together really well,” Peffley said. “There’s no clichés, there’ no drama. We all get along. Coming into this atmosphere has been really good for me. I love the bond we have between us and the family atmosphere.”
Junior third baseman Ally Klein (.432, 29 RBIs, and 19 stolen bases) is one of the Cougars most dependable hitters at the three spot.
“As far as leadership, this team doesn’t need leadership all the time,” Young said. “In a team aspect everybody does their role. It’s more along the lines that when you’re not having a good day that all the kids do a good job of picking each other up. The legacy of this group is that not only are people going to look at Holy Cross softball in a different light, but they’re going to look into the dugout and see that the kids know how to conduct themselves on and off the softball field.”
Atzinger (.437, 1 HR, 27 RBIs, and 16 stolen bases) is a dangerous No. 4 hitter.
Sophomore first baseman Dakota Young (.375, 5 HRs, and 41 RBUs) hits in the five-spot. She blasted two home runs in last week’s Sixth Region Tournament.
Just (.279, 13 RBIs), a designated player or pitcher, hits in the six spot.
“We all hold each other accountable,” Just said. “Unlike previous years, we go up to other players and tell them what they did wrong. We don’t hold back and we aren’t offended by it if somebody gets on us – and we build on it.”
Junior Kameron Bowling (.295, 17 RBIs), a designated player or pitcher, hits in the seven-spot.
“We have a lot of confidence as a team and as individual players,” Bowling said. “Our chemistry is insane. We are a big family and we pick each other up. We never put each other down. If somebody makes an error, we help each other and make sure nobody is hanging their head. Mistakes are going to happen. It’s how you come back from it.”
Bodenbender (.222, 9 RBIs) is the No. 8 hitter.
Sophomore Hannah Burkhardt (.237, 6 RBIs) hits in the nine-hole.
Kaelynn Goatley starts in left field but will not hit.
Amber Kaufman and Kailey Reed have provided the Cougars speed on the base path as courtesy runners.
“With Holy Cross being a small school, we have always struggled with numbers,” Young said. “Over the last few years the quantity isn’t always the number you want but the quality is always there. The sophomore class has contributed in a huge way. Kailey Reed comes out after sitting out of softball for a year and has been a phenomenal asset. Burkhardt has started two complete years. She has done everything we need. She’s the ultimate team player.”
“Dakota had to overcome adversity and we had to learn how to play together,” continued Young. “She has learned how to contribute. Our freshmen have been great. Maddi came in and has gotten to play because her position was a position of need. Amber Kaufman has been just as valuable as well. She is going to be a phenomenal ball player and has a ton of potential. We haven’t had the big classes the other schools get, but the quality is really good.”
Young and his army will open up the state tournament with a game against Anderson County in the first round. First pitch is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET Thursday at Owensboro’s Jack C. Fisher Park.
“I love the fight and heart in this team,” Atzinger said. “We are going to fight until the last pitch. We don’t give up and this is what will allow us to make a run in the state tournament.”
The Bearcats are led by the state all-time career home run leader Bailey Curry who has 62 career bombs and is hitting .543 with 12 home runs and 39 RBIs this season.
Mia Aldridge (.422, 4 HRs, and 35 RBIs), Carmen Holt (.355, 14 RBIs), and Kaci Currens (.336, 2 HRs, and 36 RBIs) all have a plus .300 batting average with at least 90 plate appearances.
Aldridge (155 IP, 1.94 ERA, 121 Ks, and 38 BB) is Anderson County’s ace.
The Bearcats have won the Eighth Region three straight seasons; they made it to the Final Four last season, and were eliminated after just three games two years ago.
“I have never thought about what I want these players to gain most from it,” Young said. “They’re one of the last 16 teams in the state and you can’t win a state championship unless you’re in the state tournament and what I hope for is a state championship.”