What’s the likelihood that a high school team from Northern Kentucky will win either of this year’s state baseball and softball tournaments at University of Kentucky ballparks in Lexington?
The 2023 state baseball tournament begins June 1 at Counter Clocks Field (formerly known as Whitaker Bank Ballpark). The state softball tournament also gets underway June 1 at nearby John Cropp Stadium.
“It’s very hard for any team to win state, not just teams from Northern Kentucky,” said Conner baseball coach Brad Arlinghaus, who’s qualified for state both as a player at Covington Catholic and a head coach at Conner. “For baseball, it’s a true state tournament in Kentucky, without classifications. In football, for example, you have six classifications. No offense to football, but it’s easier to win a state championship than baseball.”
Northern Kentucky, a perennially talent-rich area, has a chance to send three regional baseball champions to the 16-team state tournament every year. With just a handful of local squads competing in the 8th and 10th Regions, the burden of generating a state champion for the area falls largely upon the 9th Region, which has deluged the state tournament with some of the best teams ever assembled in these parts, guided by some of the best coaches and manned by future college stars and major-leaguers.
Yet the area has produced just eight baseball champions since the advent of the state tournament in 1940. Winning state is so difficult that only four local schools and two cities can say they’ve done it. Newport won the first two titles in 1940-41. Newport Central Catholic leads the area with four state titles in 1946, 1950, 1954 and 1956. Covington’s Holmes won in 1963. The 2002 Covington Catholic champion is the only local team to win state going on 60 years.
“Think of all the talent that’s come through CovCath over the years. And they have one state championship,” Arlinghaus said of the 10-time regional champion Colonels. “That’s not a knock on the coach or the team. That’s how hard it is to win state.”
Something similar can be said about fellow perennial powers Beechwood and Highlands, who combined to win seven straight 9th Region titles from 2015-22, and Campbell County, the most frequent 10th Region representative at state the last seven seasons. Beechwood went 2-3 at state from 2019-22. Highlands has been excruciatingly close. They went 7-4 from 2015-18, with three wins and a state final appearance in 2015 and 2018.
Piling on to the degree of difficulty is what Arlinghaus calls the fluke factor, an intangible that can figure heavily in the outcomes of games where the margin for error is miniscule.
Over the last 10 years, 9th Region squads have posted an 8-10 record at the state tournament. Four of those 10 state ousters came in one-run losses. Three of the last nine state ousters for 8th and 10th Region teams came by a single run. In back-to-back seasons, both Campbell County in 2016 and Simon Kenton in 2017, lost by a run in the state title game.
Campbell County went 4-4 at state in four visits from 2016-22, with three wins and an appearance in the 2016 final, a 1-0 loss to St. Xavier.
Simon Kenton went 6-2 in a pair of state appearances in 2014 and 2017. The Pioneers lost 5-2 to St. Xavier in the 2014 final. They lost 6-5 to Pleasure Ridge Park in the 2017 final.
As difficult as it’s been for local baseball teams to finish on top, it’s been near impossible for fast-pitch softball teams. There has been one fast-pitch state champion from the area, and it took one of Kentucky’s greatest players to get the job done.
That team was the 2006 Ryle Raiders, coached by Bill Matteoli and led by Oklahoma-bound Kirsten Allen, who last year was named the greatest fast-pitch softball pitcher in Kentucky history by MaxPreps.
How tough is it to win state?
With Allen back in the fold for her 2007 junior season, Ryle finished state runner-up with a 4-0 loss to Greenwood in the final. It was more runs than the Raiders had allowed in all of the previous 12 games combined. The equalizers for Greenwood were a pair of pitchers, Rachel Riley and Jessie Dunning, who for one tournament were good enough to battle the incomparable Allen. Riley, a Kentucky Prep Softball Hall of Famer, went on to a stellar college career at Kentucky.
Ryle was eliminated in the losers’ bracket Allen’s senior season, an eye-opening fact that deserves a wow.
How difficult is it to win state softball games?
Local squads have not emerged victorious at state since Notre Dame Academy won its tournament opener in 2017. Since that win, area teams have lost seven straight at state, a streak local regional softball champions will be looking to put a stop to in Lexington.