By: Eric Thorne
Lexi Ray stood strong in the pitchers circle for the Mercy softball team through 6 2/3 innings Friday night, but the third out didn’t come soon enough.
Butler’s Courtney Abbott dropped a little RBI flare into right field scoring Katelyn Templeman for a 1-0 victory sending the Bearettes (25-9) to the Owensboro Health/KHSAA Fastpitch Softball State Tournament for the first time in 11 years.
Coach Brittany Bruan stood smiling as her team celebrated and cradled the Sixth Region championship trophy at the University of Louisville’s Ulmer Stadium.
“This feels so exciting and amazing and I am so happy for these girls right now,” Braun said before getting doused with a Gatorade bath. “It has been 11 years since we won the regional’s and went to the state, and I know that because that was my first year as head coach at Butler. This is a great group who just comes out to play and doesn’t get caught up in things. Sometimes nerves get to them, but they are very young and fun.”
Ray and Butler freshman Sadie Werner were locked in a pitcher’s duel all night as both threw complete games.
Ray had nine strikeouts and faced just 22 batters entering the seventh inning while Werner fanned three as just 21 Jaguars came to the plate.
In the top of the seventh Maddy Johnson was hit by a pitch with one out, but couldn’t reach home thanks to some stellar catches in center by Carley Ziegler and an running catch by Templeman in right to end the inning.
“That just seemed to be the way it went all night for us,” said Mercy second baseman Lexy Wright. “We didn’t know much about them not playing them this year. You have to hit to score no matter who you play. It just didn’t fall our way tonight.”
For Werner trying to keep her composure locked in a scoreless game was becoming tougher by the inning.
“The last inning was so nerve racking for me, and I was in the dugout praying ‘please Courtney get the hit ,” said Werner, who allowed just two hits. “All of our hard work this year has paid off. I didn’t want anyone to see my nerves out there.”
A pumped up Templeman was hit by a pitch to open the bottom of the seventh. Successful sacrifice bunts by Anna Greenwell and Ziegler moved her to third.
Abbott stepped to the plate having made the final out in her three previous plate appearances. The fourth time she delivered on a 1 ball, 2 strike count.
“I told them we only need one run and I was hoping we could get another bunt down, but Courtney is really big time now,” Braun said.
Ray could only bend over with her face in her glove to as the Bearette players mobbed Abbott in a pile at first.
“This is so crazy right now, but what a feeling to experience this,” Abbott said. “It was nerve racking with two out, two on and two strikes, but I had my team behind me. I knew she would get ahead and the changeup was coming. I just got my bat on it.”
“I thought we played well, but every hit we got hold of went straight at people,” said Ray, who only gave up three hits. “I felt rested tonight, and I was ahead in the count. But Courtney and I actually grew up together so props to her. “
Mercy coach Greg Meiners had every confidence in his senior pitcher, but didn’t want added pressureon her. He chose to intentionally walk Kyndal Tinnel after the bunts and pitch to Abbott.
“My pitching coach asked me several times about walking Abbott too, and I told him no because that was too much to put on Lexy,” Meiners said. “I also knew the batter behind her (Alyssa Brock) had struck out all two times, but she could have easily have gotten four balls and walked in a run.”
Ray, who will play at the University of Tennessee-Martin next year stuck with her instinct to throw Abbott the change-up.
“It’s hard out there with two out and you know it could be your last game,” Ray said. “I don’t regret that pitch I threw. I’m just proud that I went to Mercy all four years, and have great memories.”
For Wright it meant walking off the softball diamond for the last time in her career.
“Yeah it’s going to be very hard this is it for me I’m going to take next year off and there is a slim chance I might try and come back somewhere my sophomore year,” Wright said. “I’ve been playing since T-ball so this is definitely a very tough emotional moment right now.”
Butler, which has just one senior on the team in Ziegler, is filled with young players including three eighth-graders.
For Mercy (22-7) it means the end of a career for five players, Ray, Wright, Tate McCormick, Madison Dykes and Jill Vorreiter.
Meiners was trying to console his team with some inspirational words and history about the Jaguar program they were a part of.
“They may not understand it fully at this moment, but Mercy has won 11 regional’s in the past 16 seasons which means all the other teams in this region which right now is 17 have combined to win just seven,” Meiners said. “These are great girls and we will especially miss Lexy’s pitching, and we’ll have some growing pains with that.”
Butler’s reward will be a daunting state tournament opener at 5 pm Tuesday against the 16 Region champions East Carter who are a perfect 36-0 on the season. The Lady Raiders have only given up 18 runs all year.