‘I love our fight.’ Henderson County joins Ballard in softball state championship game.

Henderson County pitcher Anna Kemp held strong in the circle in the bottom of the eighth inning of what turned out to be a 4-1 victory in 10 innings against East Jessamine in the in 2023 Clark’s Pump-N-Shop Softball State Tournament semifinals on Friday evening at the University of Kentucky’s John Cropp Stadium.

Kemp had just walked Alex Smith, loading the bases with two outs when Jaguars shortstop Jessyca Searcy stepped up to the plate.

“That was one of the points in the game where I wasn’t as nervous,” Kemp said. “I was more relaxed. I knew that my defense was really behind me there and it was that pitch. I had that pitch right there. And my coach — also my dad (Kris Kemp), he’s my pitching coach — he called the pitch that I wanted and I needed and I knew I had to execute it and that’s what I did. And my awesome shortstop (JaMaya Byrum) behind me made the play.”

Searcy sent a grounder to Byrum, who whipped it to Kendal Hargrove at first for the easy out.

“We just couldn’t get the hits we needed,” East Jessamine head coach Kevin Dennis said. “And, you know, we hadn’t hit it as good as we have been up here, but, you know, with Kayleigh (White) pitching, we’ve always got a shot. We just couldn’t get a run that we needed. So, that’s how it goes in softball.”

Kemp struck out 21 batters in the Colonels’ first state semifinals victory, allowing three hits and one run. White recorded eight strikeouts and allowed eight hits and four runs.

Though the matchup lasted 10 innings, neither team could get on the scoreboard until the sixth when East Jessamine picked up a run on an Alex Smith line-drive single, which batted in Natalie Alimento.

Not one to be intimidated by a deficit, the Colonels came back strong in the top of the seventh to tie things up on a Mackenzie Burcyk grounder that sent catcher Hallie McCracken home.

“My attitude was, it’s going to be a full seven innings, possibly more,” ,” McCracken said. “You come with the mentality, ‘We want to come out with the win. We want to go to the championship,’ and, sure enough, we’re going.”

Neither team recorded another hit until the top of the 10th, when Henderson County left fielder Alyse Rollings singled on a grounder with one out.

East Jessamine then made the decision to intentionally walk center fielder Taylor Troutman for the second time, after Troutman hit a single in the top of the first and made contact on her following at-bats.

Henderson County left fielder Alyse Rollings scores the go-ahead run in the 10th inning of her team’s 4-1 victory against East Jessamine.
Henderson County left fielder Alyse Rollings scores the go-ahead run in the 10th inning of her team’s 4-1 victory against East Jessamine.

With Troutman at third and Hargrove at second, East Jessamine intentionally walked Byrum, loading the bases and allowing for McCracken to hit an RBI single. Both Troutman and Hargrove crossed home plate, putting the Colonels up 4-1.

“We had a couple of hard-hit balls early on,” Henderson County head coach Shannon Troutman said. “I mean, just a couple of hard shots and wasn’t falling. And then was like, ‘We’re putting the ball in play on her. You know, she’s not striking everybody out. We’re putting the ball in play.’ And we just kept talking, ‘Man, it’s gonna fall. We’re gonna get something to fall and we got to keep pressure on her.’ And it finally did, we just got a couple of little off-the-handle hits and really broke free in that 10th inning.”

The three-run lead proved to be enough. The Colonels’ defense delivered a quick three outs to secure the victory.

“I love our fight,” Kemp said. “We just love each other so much and we come out here, we spend so much time off the field with each other, so when we come out here, it’s so powerful to be with each other and just encouraging each other all the time, and just pulling out a win like this. It goes to our love for each other, really.”

Gatorade State POY leads Ballard back to title game

Brooke Gray and her teammates laughed it off as Rowan County catcher Lauryn Eastham hit a home run at the top of the seventh to cut Ballard’s lead to 4-1, the final score in the Bruins’ semifinal victory over Rowan County.

“We just kind of laugh everything off,” Gray said. “Like that pitch, it was the one changeup I threw all game and it just kind of happens. I mean, you can’t really get upset about it. It’s just, you kind of laugh it off and then you have three more batters and we’re done.”

According to Ballard head coach Alan Jones, his team has found a way to laugh adversity off all season.

“All year,” Jones said. “They just laugh it off. But you know, my pitching coach (Brittany Mockbee), who’s huge. She’s awesome. Said, ‘Close your eyes.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, I know what’s coming.’ And, boom. But I mean, that’s just the way they’ve been.”

It’s not difficult to laugh things off when your defense is bolstered by Gray. The ace, a Louisville signee, was just named the Gatorade Kentucky Softball Player of the Year. Now, she’s helped lift her team to a second consecutive trip to the 2023 Clark’s Pump-N-Shop Softball State Tournament finals. And, in the victory over Rowan County, Gray also surpassed 1,000 career strikeouts.

“It’s unreal,” Gray said of the milestone. “I remember last year, just the feeling of all of it. Just like getting better, and feeling myself getting better as the year went on. And now, it’s like I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Since I was a freshman, I’ve always been told, like Montana Fouts, like she had 1,000-something strikeouts, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna get 1,000 before I leave’. And especially since missing my freshman year, it’s like, it feels crazy that I’m already here. So I’m just excited to see what college brings and how I can get better in college.”

Gray struck out 10 batters, allowing just one run on two hits.

“She’s awesome,” Rowan County head coach Larry Slone said. “I mean, she comes to you, she’s gonna make you play the game. And you’ve got to be ready to play the game. And that’s the challenge at every ball game that you play, when you get to this level, you have to be ready to step up and get it done. Or the better player wins the game. And today, you know, she was very, very good.”

Jones, the winningest high school softball coach in Kentucky state history, couldn’t be prouder of his Bruins. But he does see room for improvement ahead of the championship.

“I’m just proud of them,” Jones said. “And we are a team, and we’re just fortunate enough to have the best pitcher in the country pitching for us. Tomorrow, we got to get these bats going. I mean, that’s been the biggest letdown right now. But again, we’ve been facing good pitching and I got to keep telling myself, ‘Look, good pitching shuts out good hitting,’ but we find a way to win.’”

Ballard hit the scoreboard early on, delivering two runs in the first inning thanks to, first, a Rowan County error, and, second, a sacrifice fly from Imari Golden that knocked in Mikayla Milby.

The Bruins scored another when Lillian Koch stole home at the bottom of the second, sliding across the plate.

Ballard scored its final run in the fourth inning when Milby ran home once more, that time after a Macy McCoy single.

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