Advertisement

'We're ready.' Highlands, Notre Dame set to play for Ninth Region softball title

It was a perfect day for high school softball at Thomas More University field on Monday.

The turf field in Crestview Hills, which is playing host to the Ninth Region semifinals and championship for the first time, couldn't have seen better games as Notre Dame and Conner, and Highlands and Cooper took the field looking to advance to Wednesday's title game.

Here's how the games shook out.

Notre Dame walks off into the championship game

The Pandas don't quit.

After Conner broke a 2-2 tie with a run in the top of the seventh, the Pandas found themselves down to their last out with a runner on second. Freshman Addi Zinser shot a double to the right-center field gap, scoring Lucy Dillon to tie the game. Two pitches later, Ava Auberger drove in Zinser to give Notre Dame a 4-3 win and an appearance in their first Ninth Region championship game since 2019.

"I wanted to be the one that walked it off. My second batter got the tying run in and I was up to bat and I was like, 'I gotta do this right now.'" Auberger said.

Notre Dame's Addison Zinser (15) jumps for joy after scoring the winning run in the Pandas' 4-3 win over Conner in the Ninth Region tournament semifinals on May 27, 2024 at Thomas More Softball Field in Crestview Hills, Ky.
Notre Dame's Addison Zinser (15) jumps for joy after scoring the winning run in the Pandas' 4-3 win over Conner in the Ninth Region tournament semifinals on May 27, 2024 at Thomas More Softball Field in Crestview Hills, Ky.

It was an eventful seventh inning for Auberger, who briefly stayed down on the field after diving for a fly ball in short left field in the top of the inning. She was due to bat fifth in the bottom of the seventh but knew her offense would give her a chance.

The win was just another justification for the Pandas' season. They beat Highlands for the first time since 2017 and own a 19-7 record.

Notre Dame's girls could have hung their heads after surrendering a 2-0 lead. Conner loaded the bases with one out in the fourth inning, received a single from Ciarra Morgan and benefitted from a fielder's choice play at the plate to tie it. Two-out singles from Jalyn Cain and Breanna Meredith in the seventh gave the Cougars a one-run lead.

"The thing with these girls, they just don't quit. They continue to grind it out. They find ways to win ballgames," head coach Christopher Schreiber said.

Notre Dame junior pitcher Abby Turnpaugh (6) allowed six hits and three runs in seven innings against Conner on May 27, 2024.
Notre Dame junior pitcher Abby Turnpaugh (6) allowed six hits and three runs in seven innings against Conner on May 27, 2024.

The loss for Conner was a second heartbreaker in seven days. The Cougars lost to Cooper in the 33rd District championship game, surrendering a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning before giving up two runs in the bottom of the ninth.

Their downfall in this game was the three errors they committed, which included missing a routine throw to first in the fourth inning and two fielding errors, one of which was the game's last play.

Conner finishes the season at 18-12, including a 2-6 record in one-run games. They say goodbye to seniors Cain, Katie Hammond and Mollie Sharp.

Highlands defense shines as Bluebirds hunt three-peat

The center fielders made all the difference as Highlands got past Cooper, 7-4, to appear in a third straight regional championship game.

After Highlands jumped out to a 2-0 lead in one inning, Cooper's offense got going in the fifth. Ainsley Scroggie led off with a single and scored on a Maddie Childress single. Alivia Scott's single could have tied the game up, but Bailey Markus fielded it cleanly and threw Childress out at the plate.

Highlands senior Michelle Barth (5) went 2-for-2 with an RBI and two runs scored in a 7-4 Ninth Region semifinal win over Cooper on May 27, 2024 at Thomas More Softball Field.
Highlands senior Michelle Barth (5) went 2-for-2 with an RBI and two runs scored in a 7-4 Ninth Region semifinal win over Cooper on May 27, 2024 at Thomas More Softball Field.

With runners on first and second and two outs, Grace Cline sent a sinking fly ball into center. Markus tracked it all the way, making a diving grab and potentially saving another two runs.

"If I can do whatever I can on the defensive side, I will. Laying out and getting a little bruise is going to be the least of my concerns as long as I'm catching the ball," Markus said.

In the bottom of the inning, Highlands loaded the bases with two outs. Eighth-grader Layla Zepf, who was thrown out in the fourth inning trying to stretch a double into a triple, hit the first pitch into center for a single. The bases cleared and Zepf ended up at third after Cooper center fielder Kailey Milburn misplayed the ball, giving Highlands a 5-1 advantage.

"We have a wide mixture of players. We've got the two seniors, who obviously came up big," Highlands head coach Milt Horner said.

Markus made another sliding grab in the top of the sixth, cementing her Ninth Region tournament MVP candidacy.

Cooper made its fair share of defensive plays, but two mistakes did them in. Ava Scott caught a line drive at shortstop in the first inning and had a chance to double Markus up at first but her throw went into the fence. Two batters later, Michelle Barth sent a ball down the right-field line for a two-run double.

Highlands center fielder Bailey Markus was the Bluebirds' defensive star in a 7-4 Ninth Region semifinal win over Cooper on May 27, 2024. She made two diving catches and threw a runner out at home.
Highlands center fielder Bailey Markus was the Bluebirds' defensive star in a 7-4 Ninth Region semifinal win over Cooper on May 27, 2024. She made two diving catches and threw a runner out at home.

"A few plays where we didn't execute the way we needed to execute. When you're playing a team like Highlands, it's really tough, and they play all parts of the game well," Cooper head coach Rusty Scott said.

The Bluebirds, who may have the best top-to-bottom offense in the region, stayed back on Lily Spraker's slower pitches, something other teams have struggled to do. Eight batters got a hit; Markus' lone hit in the bottom of the sixth was the 200th of her career.

"We struggle with the slower pitchers sometimes, but in big games like this, we always take our time," Markus said.

Highlands sophomore pitcher Kaitlyn Dixon (22) earned her 20th win of the season as the Bluebirds beat Cooper 7-4 in the Ninth Region tournament semifinals on May 27, 2024 at Thomas More Softball Field.
Highlands sophomore pitcher Kaitlyn Dixon (22) earned her 20th win of the season as the Bluebirds beat Cooper 7-4 in the Ninth Region tournament semifinals on May 27, 2024 at Thomas More Softball Field.

The Jaguars gave themselves a chance in the seventh inning, stringing together two singles and two doubles to score three runs before Kaitlyn Dixon recorded her 10th strikeout of the game to close the door. Cooper finishes at 20-11, its fourth straight season with at least 20 wins. Childress, Milburn and Scott were a big reason for that success.

"Before (the seniors) got here, Cooper hadn't had much success. They ended up being the winningest group that we've had ... I've known those girls since they came in as seventh graders. It's just hard to see the last game today.," Scott said.

The Ninth Region title tilt

Highlands and Notre Dame will meet at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Thomas More to decide who represents Northern Kentucky in the state tournament.

The Pandas took down the Bluebirds on May 7 thanks to two runs in the fifth inning, snapping Highlands' 29-game Ninth Region winning streak. The Bluebirds lead the all-time series 24-18 since the 2001 season.

Just like "Broadway" Joe Namath guaranteed a New York Jets win in Super Bowl III, "Broadway Bailey," if you will, was ready to call her shot for Wednesday's game.

"It's been in my nightmares the past couple weeks, but I think it'll be a different game on Wednesday. We're ready. We're coming back with a vengeance," Markus said.

Highlands previously beat Notre Dame in the 2014 Ninth Region championship before the Pandas got their revenge a year later.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: KHSAA softball: Notre Dame, Highlands win thrilling semifinal games