RICHMOND – The Franklin County Lady Flyers have suffered through the whims of youth at times this season, occasionally playing without the focus or smarts that undoubtedly they will acquire in the next year or two as the young players mature.
But coach Tracy Spickard’s Lady Flyers have managed to reach the semifinals of the 11th Region Tournament thanks to two big positives: talent (albeit mostly young) and grit.
Both attributes shined here Monday at Eastern Kentucky University as Franklin County held off Dunbar, 4-3, in the regional quarterfinals.
The Lady Flyers move on at 23-13 to face 23-12 Madison Central today at 3:30 in the semifinals. Madison Central eased past Henry Clay, 5-1, in an earlier quarterfinal on Monday.
Scott County will play Woodford County in the other semifinal at 5:30. Scott County edged Madison Southern 2-1 in nine innings on Monday.
Woodford County shut out Tates Creek 8-0 in the late game Monday.
Franklin County built a 4-1 lead and appeared to be cruising through four and a half innings against Dunbar when the Lady Flyers’ maturity and mettle were tested.
Kaitlin Elias opened the Dunbar fifth with a single, and Shelby Shanks and Emily Bryan each doubled to bring the Bulldogs within 4-3 of the Lady Flyers, with no outs.
Ashley Hack came on to pitch for Franklin County in place of Kara Howard and retired Riley Brown on a ground out. Mary Martin reached on a fielder’s choice, but the Lady Flyers then turned a double play as shortstop Shelby Sanders grabbed the ground ball off the bat of Jessica Southworth, stepped on the second base bag for a force out, and threw to Brianna Banks at first base to finish the double play.
“Dunbar was a hot team,” Spickard said of the Bulldogs, who came into this tournament riding a nine-game winning streak. “They are a good hitting team and a very well-coached team, and I knew they weren’t going to lay down and die when we got out three runs. So I knew we had to hold our ground and answer back ourselves.”
The Bulldogs had nine hits in the game off FCHS pitchers Howard and Hack, but the Lady Flyers repeatedly made the stops defensively to prevent a big inning.
“That’s just a tribute to these kids,” Spickard said. “They made the big plays when they had to to shut them down. I’m super proud of their effort today.
“All year long this team has, despite their youthfulness, played to the end,” Spickard added. “They are often stronger the last few innings than they are the first few innings. They play with a lot of heart and determination, and those kinds of kids are fun to coach and fun to watch.”
And it was even sweeter for Franklin County coming off a disappointing 3-2 loss to Woodford County Thursday in the 41st District Tournament final.
“We were ready after the districts,” said Howard, a sophomore, who made a number of big plays versus Dunbar. “We had some bad calls in the district tournament, but we dug in today. We knew we had to come out battling and get ahead early.”
Howard had her brightest moment offensively in the third inning. After Kiana Butler opened that frame for FCHS with a walk, Howard lined a triple to the right field wall to tie the game, 1-1. Then, with one out, Sydney Wiard, an eighth-grader, grounded out, but Howard raced for home and slid under the tag of the Dunbar catcher to give the Lady Flyers a 2-1 lead.
Asked if Howard is rapidly becoming a team leader, Spickard said: “Sure, and she’s only a sophomore. She showed some good poise and good leadership on the field for us. She came through with that huge hit for us in the third inning to get us on the board, and we kind of rallied around her after that.”
Both Howard and Hack pitched well against Dunbar. As she did effectively in the district final, Spickard rotated Howard and Hack on the mound throughout Monday’s game.
“Me and Ashley feed off each other and do really well,” Howard said. “Both of us have different styles, and it gives batters a different look.”
“I thought both pitchers did a great job,” Spickard said. “When Dunbar strung a few hits together, we’d mix it up, and they (Howard and Hack) had each other’s back.”
Franklin County gained breathing room at 4-1 with two more runs in the top of the fifth.
Howard opened that inning with a single. Macy Johnson hit a nice sacrifice bunt, and then Wiard singled home Howard and reached second on the throw home. Banks hit a two-out single to drive home the fourth and final FCHS run.
The Lady Flyers then held on. After the Bulldogs closed within 4-3 through five innings, they threatened in the sixth, putting two runners on with two outs, but Hack retired Shanks on a 4-3 ground out to end the inning.
Dunbar went down 1-2-3 in the seventh to end the game.