Dixie Heights, Highlands win 9th Region semifinal games by thinnest margin possible

G. Michael Graham
G. Michael Graham
Mike Graham covers sports for LINK nky

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It’s a rematch for the 9th Region softball title.

The same two teams that won last year’s semifinal games did it again this year as Highlands (26-8-1) held off Cooper in extra innings and Dixie Heights (21-13) fought off a late rally against Ryle. They’ll now square off again on Sunday at 2 p.m. at Winkler Field in Fort Thomas for the championship. The two made it back to the title game with one-run victories.

Dixie Heights 5, Ryle 4

The notion of this one being a low-scoring game similar to last year’s 2-0 Dixie Heights win in the semifinals last year jumped out the window when the Colonels scored four unearned runs in the top of the first.

Both pitchers threw complete games. Dixie Heights junior Riley Hopkins (13-8) struck out two, walked six and allowed three earned runs. She finished the game with her 100th strikeout of the season. Ryle junior Maddie Goddard (14-9) struck out five, walked none and allowed no earned runs.

“At this point, I’m just looking at the girls. Control what you can control,” said Sarah Osborne, Dixie Heights head coach. “Riley knew that the strike zone was tight. For her it was trust my defense. For the rest of the girls, it was just play Colonel ball. Colonel ball is we hate to lose. That’s kind of the expectation I’m trying to build here. There’s a difference between liking to win and hating to lose. I’ve always had that mentality and I think the girls are slowly getting it.”

Despite Ryle having a 6-4 advantage in the hit department, Dixie Heights scored all five runs off six Raider errors while the Raiders scored one unearned run off the lone Colonels error.

Junior center fielder Skylar Mitchell went 2-for-3 with a double, a run batted in and scored twice to lead the Colonels at the plate. Senior shortstop Avery Parsons went 2-for-3 with two doubles and two RBI for Ryle with freshman left fielder Makenna Hirshey going 2-for-3 and scoring once. Senior Aaliyah Kaseke had a double and RBI in her lone at-bat before scoring once.

Dixie’s lone senior in shortstop Ella Steczynski led off the game with an infield single before eighth grader Haley Waters laid down a bunt. An errant throw to first let Steczynski score to put the Colonels up 1-0. Mitchell then singled to right scoring Waters putting Dixie up 2-0.

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“I think once everyone is hitting, hitting is contagious,” Mitchell said. “As long as you put the ball in play, good things will happen. We know to keep our cool, not get nervous and play like we are.”

Two more unearned runs put Ryle in a 4-0 hole in the opening frame.

“That first inning got us,” said Jarret Goddard, Ryle head coach. “It was nerves.”

Ryle came back to score once in the bottom of the first. With two out, sophomore catcher Laney Schuster and Maddie Goddard drew back-to-back walks and courtesy runner Kylie Patterson later scored on a Haley Waters error to make it 4-1.

“I knew I had to get it out of my mind because I’ve seen it affect a player’s whole game,” Waters said. “It brings down the players and it doesn’t help the team have backup. We all had fight and believed in each other.”

The Colonels added a run in the top of the third to go up 5-1. Mitchell doubled and took third on a Ryle error then scored when Ingram reached on another Ryle error.

The Raiders made a big push in the bottom of the sixth when Hirshey and senior catcher Grace Tranbargar drew consecutive walks. Kaseke’s two-run double made it 5-3, Parsons following with a double to make it 5-4.

But the Colonels clawed out of the inning without any further damage. It started when senior third baseman Payton Godfrey ran into Ingram trying to chase a foul ball and the umpires ruled her out for interference.

“That was a big first out. Luckily, it went our way,” Osborne said. “It could have gone either way.”

Hopkins then got Schuster to pop out and Maddie Goddard to ground out on a dribbler in front of the plate. Dixie Heights freshman catcher Sydney Schumacher jumped out, grabbed the ball, stepped to her left and threw to Ingram to end the inning.

“I didn’t think. I just grabbed the ball, threw it, trusted myself, trusted that (Ingram) was going to catch it and make the play,” Schumacher said. “We can’t press too hard because we know we have the ability to win.”

Ryle went quietly in the bottom of the seventh. They graduate six seniors in Parsons, Kaseke, Grace Tranbarger, Lerin Moreland, Godfrey and Emily Zmurk. The six helped the Raiders to consecutive 33rd District crowns.

“I’ve had a relationship with the seniors for a long time,” Coach Goddard said. “Maddie grew up playing ball with them.”

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Dixie Heights is back in the region championship for the third time in five years, winning it in 2019.

Ryle senior first baseman Grace Tranbarger watches at first base during the 9th Region semifinal Saturday in Fort Thomas. Photo provided | Bob Jackson

Highlands 2, Cooper 1 (10 innings)

Pitching and defense was the name of the game in this one.

Both pitchers also threw complete games.

“That was a fantastic softball game all the way around,” said Milt Horner, Highlands head coach. “They made a couple great plays to save runs. Great softball game for all the people that saw it. You never want to lose on your home field. They never quit.”

Highlands freshman Kaitlyn Dixon struck out 14 and walked three. Cooper senior Kendall Blau struck out four and walked one.

Highlands freshman pitcher Kaitlyn Dixon delivers to the plate in the 9th Region semifinals Saturday. Dixon struck out 14 in the 10-inning battle leading the Bluebirds to a 2-1 win over Cooper. Photo provided | Bob Jackson

“I’m not going to lie. I was pretty nervous going into the game,” Dixon said. “But I know that my team has my back and they want it just as bad as I do.”

Junior center fielder Bailey Markus and freshman shortstop Payton Brown both went 3-for- 5, scoring one run each for Highlands. Brown led off the bottom of the 10th with a double to center on a 1-0 count. Then on the next pitch, junior catcher Michelle Barth singled to center scoring Brown to end the game.

“I knew I had to get it in the gap or hit it on the right side,” Barth said. “(Blau) pitched it inside and I took it where it was pitched. I was looking for something inside first pitch.”

Kat Furnish led Cooper with a 3-for-4 day and scored Cooper’s lone run. Junior pinch-hitter Maddie Childress added a double.

Both teams made web gems throwing out runners at the plate. In the top of the third with one out and Furnish at second, junior shortstop Ava Scott hit a long fly ball to Highlands freshman Cam Markus. Furnish tagged up going to third then tried to score. But Brown took the relay throw and fired to Barth at home to tag out Furnish.

“(Blau) has pitched tremendous in the postseason,” Cooper head coach Rusty Scott said of Blau. “We haven’t scored enough runs to carry her. This is some of the best work I’ve seen from her since she’s been at Cooper.”

Cooper senior Kendall Blau delivers to the plate in the 9th Region semifinals at Highlands on Saturday. Blau struck out four in the 10-inning game. Photo provided | Bob Jackson

Highlands threatened in the bottom of the fifth when eighth grade left fielder Allie Meyers and Cam Markus led off with back-to-back singles. A groundout from Bailey Markus followed to put runners at the corners before freshman second baseman Morgan Pompilio stepped to the plate and hit a ground ball to Cooper senior third baseman Ashley Chaney. Meyers tried to score. But Chaney threw to Furnish for the big out before Blau got Brown to fly out to end the inning.

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Cooper scored the game’s first run in the top of the eighth. Furnish singled and moved to second when Ava Scott singled. Then with two out, senior second baseman Emily Schmeltz singled to center scoring Furnish.

“They hit maybe two balls hard,” Horner said. “But several of their hits were bloopers over the mound and things like that. Kaitlyn was fantastic.

The Bluebirds responded with one in the bottom of the inning. Bailey Markus reached on a Cooper throwing error, then took second with one out when Brown singled to left. Barth then hit one down the line for a single to load the bases, bringing senior third baseman Carly Cramer to the plate. She belted a long fly to center, allowing Markus to score to tie the game. After an intentional walk to senior third baseman Kennedy Baioni, Dixon grounded into a fielder’s choice to end the inning.

“It was a little stressful. I think we just had a lot of adrenaline throughout the entire game,” Cramer said. “We just took it as it came and did what we needed to do. I said to (Cramer and Baioni), ‘I’ve coached you for six years. I know you have it in you. Go up and get it done.”

Highlands is back in the region championship for the sixth time since 2014. The Bluebirds won it in 2014, 2016 and last year.

Barth finished 2-for-5 with an RBI.

Cooper graduates four seniors in Blau, Chaney, Schmeltz and Claire Poage. They helped the Jaguars to the first three region tournament appearances in program history, including a trip to the region championship in 2021.

“Claire’s been a great leader for us having one of her best batting averages down the stretch,” Coach Scott said. “Emily’s kind of carried us all year with the bat strength. They pitched around her and she took advantage when she had the opportunity as she did most of the year. Ashley Chaney was lights out for us at third all year. They’re going to be missed. I’ve known them since they’ve been eight, nine years playing travel ball with them.”

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