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Tough luck for young Highlands’ team in state tourney softball for second straight year

By Dan Weber

NKyTribune sports reporter

LEXINGTON – A young Highlands Bluebirds’ team could not halt the Ninth Region’s six-year winless streak in the Kentucky Girls’ State Softball Championship Thursday.

But Highlands did manage to end its 12-inning-plus state tournament scoreless streak . . . but just barely.

The tears were flowing as Highlands’ Coach Milt Horner said this one was tougher than last year’s 8-0 first-round loss.

But at least the scoreless streak is gone in a 3-1 loss to Johnson Central Thursday for the two-time defending regional champion Bluebirds.

Highlands’ Coach Milt Horner tells his team how proud he is of them and how loss will make them better when they come back next year.

Not only was it a tough morning scoring at UK’s John Kropp Field, but Highlands lost more than the game — for a bit — as freshman star pitcher Kaitlyn Dixon got knocked out for a couple of innings with a line shot off her face mask in the fourth inning.

That one was courtesy of powerful Johnson Central freshman Kaylee Blair, who had already scored earlier while the Birds were occupied in a two-out rundown between second and third that took too long.

Dixon, however, would return to pitch in the fifth with bases loaded, down 3-0. “She’s OK,” Horner said, “she’s a tough kid. I think she’ll be fine.”

But by then it was too late.

Did we say shut out? Shut down is more like it.

The Birds were no-hit for the first five innings of the first-round elimination loss to a Johnson Central team that is now 28-9 behind the strong pitching effort of senior Maddie Vaughn, who improved her record to 18-5.

Highlands, meanwhile, dropped to 27-9 as the Ninth Region goes back to the drawing board to figure out how to get a postseason win in Lexington.

Highland’s freshman Kaitlyn Dixon deserved a better fate (Photo by Allen Ramsey)

Horner thinks it’s a couple of things. It’s a little bit history. And a little bit geography.

Maybe all it will take is time. Highlands starts four freshmen, including Dixon whose regular season record was 12-2, and an eighth grader. They’re coming, Horner told his team of how proud he was of their back-to-back regional titles.

“And when we get back next year . . . “ he said of what will be back-to-back-to-back if it happens. But there is that geography thing.

“One of the challenges for us is that there are only a couple of programs in Northern Kentucky the level we need (to get state competitive),” Horner said, “we travel a lot.”

Proof of that is his team’s 16-0 Ninth Region record. Outside the region, they were 11-9.

“Some of the competition in Northern Kentucky hurts us,” Horner said of a stretch of 16 straight days when the Birds didn’t get to go a full seven innings because of one-sided wins.

Then there’s the history. “We were the only region playing slow-pitch,” Horner says when softball became a KHSAA sport two decades ago. And why wouldn’t that be the case. Northern Kentucky boasted a succession of the best teams – men’s and women’s – in the nation with Hall of Fame players everywhere since the 1960s.

Highalnds’ reliever Kennedy Baioni shows some serious focus stepping in for Kaityn Dixon after Dixon was hit by a line drive in the face. (Photo by Allen Ramsey)

But now that catches up with you, Horner said. While high school boys played Knothole baseball with their dads coaching them, this just now is a time when the girls have mothers who played the fast-pitch game.

Johnson Central was young, as well, starting three freshmen, but the veteran Vaughn, getting her 24th start of the season, was the difference. She allowed just a couple of sharply hit balls. Both were from the first Bird batter in the game, Bailey Markus, on a one-hopper through the shortstop in the first and another off Vaugn’s glove in the sixth ruled a base hit.

Hard to win with just one hit. Although Horner came up with a best-case scenario that had Highlands winning, 1-0.
“We probably should have won that game, 1-0, without a few lapses,” he said. But there were those lapses.

Not with Vaughn starting all the offense the Eagles needed in the second with a base on balls. Blair singled followed by a Sophie Younce blast to center off the fielder’s glove but hit deep enough over her head to earn an RBI double from the official scorer.

Highlands could have gotten out of it if not for a rundown when the Johnson Central runner got stuck between second and third when the lead runner stopped rounding third. The rundown proved successful but the lead runner, Blair, scored while the Highlands’ infielders were occupied for a 2-0 lead that stood up.

Highlands did get on the board in the sixth when junior Markus opened with a ball off Vaughn’s glove for the Birds’ lone hit. She would score on a ground out but the Birds left just four on base because they didn’t give themselves many opportunities.

“Give them a lot of credit,” Horner said of Johnson Central, “they kept us off balance” at the plate.

And that was it. Now it’s all about next year. And finding ways to get better for his young team.

HIGHLANDS 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 – 0-1-0
JOHNSON CENTRAL 0 2 0 0 1 0 x – 3-3-5-2
WP: Vaughn (18-5), LP: Dixon (12-3)

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