HALFWAY HOME/South Warren slips past Lexington Catholic, 1-0; Spartans will face Henderson County in Friday’s semifinals


LEXINGTON — They knew what they had to do.

Find a way to get on base, take the appropriate chances when they got there, put the ball in play. Defensively, continue to dominate. No major mistakes. Get to the KHSAA state tournament semifinals.

Check, check, and check this out … South Warren has conquered a major obstacle in its pursuit of the school’s first state championship in fast-pitch softball.

The Spartans made it happen against a vaunted Lexington Catholic squad on Saturday evening at the University of Kentucky’s John Cropp Stadium. South Warren scratched out a single run in the top of the fourth inning — the Spartans, because of the draw, will be the visiting team for all of their state tournament games — and made it stick.

South Warren 1, Lexington Catholic 0.

“I told (her team) that I had a feeling,” South Warren coach Kelly Reynolds said. “I had a feeling, that if we could get past today’s game, that we’ve got a good shot … Task One was done yesterday (in an 11-2 victory over Elizabethtown in first-round play). Now it’s Task Two today.

“We still have three and four to go.”

South Warren improved to 39-3 on the season, and the Spartans will face Henderson County (34-5) in the second semifinal on Friday at UK. First pitch is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.

Louisville’s Assumption Academy, a 2-0 winner over Daviess County on Saturday, will tangle with Laurel County (29-9) in the first semifinal. Assumption (30-11) eliminated Ballard, the two-time defending state champion, in the KHSAA’s 7th Region semifinals in the final week of May.

Reynolds understood Saturday’s showdown with Lexington Catholic was a different sort of game. Mistakes would be magnified. Offense figured to be at a premium. Runs were going to be hard to come by, for both squads.

And a one-run lead was by no means safe, even though that’s all star pitcher Layla Ogden had to work with.

Courtney Norwood made the start in the circle for the Spartans, and she battled out of trouble in the early going. In the first inning, Lexington Catholic had runners on the corners with two outs, after Lydia Kennedy reached on an infield single, and Kinleigh Willoughby lined the ball into deep left-center field.

Kaylee Wilson, South’s sophomore left fielder, made one misstep before recovering to make an outstanding catch to retire the side and strand the base runners.

Lexington Catholic’s Caitlin Kelley slapped the ball up the middle for a leadoff single in the bottom of the second, before Norwood recorded a called third strike against Lauren Moore. The Spartans’ infield made the next two plays to retire the side, and it was still a scoreless game after two innings.

And that’s when South Warren coach Kelly Reynolds made her move.

Courtney Norwood and Layla Ogden have split innings almost evenly this season, but Ogden is one classification ahead of Norwood, and thus has a little more experience. Norwood and Ogden were only going to switch positions anyway, pitcher and first base, so if Ogden got into trouble, Norwood could always bail out the Spartans if needed.

It wasn’t.

Ogden started mowing down one LexCath batter after another, retiring five in a row before issuing a two-out walk to Caitilyn Kelley in the fourth. Ogden then handled a hot shot off the bat of the Lady Knights’ Lauren Moore, and the side was retired.

“We went with Layla faster than we anticipated,” Reynolds said. “We thought we need to make the change (after the second inning). I’m glad we did it early, rather than later.”

South Warren scratched out a single run in the top of the fourth, the only run of the game. Both teams finished with three hits, all of them singles.

McLaine Hudson, South’s leadoff batter, pounced on Abby Hammond’s first pitch for a line-drive single to left field.

“(Hammond) was throwing a lot of first-pitch strikes, so I jumped on it,” Hudson said.

Kinleigh Russell then stepped to the plate, and immediately showed bunt, but the Spartans actually had something else in mind.

Hammond, a junior commit to the University of Kentucky, retired the first nine batters she faced, with only one hard-hit ball. When Hudson delivered a leadoff single, Reynolds was ready to take the initiative on the base paths.

Hudson stole second base, drawing a late throw from LexCath catcher Aevae Mosley-Franklin. It wasn’t even close, and it was a sign of things to come.

Russell was retired on a fly ball to shallow left field, but an errant throw to check on Hudson at second dribbled into right field. Hudson hustled into third, and the Spartans still had two outs to work with.

That’s when South’s Hadley Borders ripped a single down the left-field line, bringing Hudson across the plate for the only run of the game. Borders immediately stole second base, too, but Hammond battled out of further trouble.

South Warren added two more stolen bases in the top of the seventh, when the Spartans left two base runners in scoring position, to put the ball in Layla Ogden’s hands.

“One run, sometimes, that’s all you need,” Reynolds said. “We were trying to get some insurance …”

Borders, like Russell, also showed bunt before delivering her RBI single in the top of the fourth. The sophomore transfer from Allen County-Scottsville would put the Spartans on the path to victory.

“It was a 1-1 pitch, and I was looking for the ball on the outer half of the plate,” Borders said. “(Hammond) has a great changeup, and she works both sides of the plate. She’ll get you to chase (bad pitches) …

“My teammates had my back.”

Ogden ran into some trouble in the bottom of the sixth, and got a big break when Lexington Catholic’s Kinley Willoughby hit a nubber in front of the plate, which bounced and hit her running down the first-base line. Home-plate umpire Joe Dempsey immediately called Willoughby out, but he also sent a base runner, Emma Emmert, back to second base, and Ogden induced a routine grounder from Caitilyn Kelley to end the threat.

“That was definitely a big moment for us,” Ogden said, “and I’m glad the call went our way. After that play, everyone was fired up!”

So, too, was Lexington Catholic coach Emery Emmert, who argued the call to no avail. In the bottom of the seventh, Ogden retired the bottom third of the Lady Knights’ batting order, in order, to leave Abby Hammond on the on-deck circle when the game ended.

Hammond sported a .578 batting average, while hitting half of the Lady Knights’ 26 home runs. She went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts on the day.

South’s Kelly Reynolds, the Spartans’ seventh-year coach, was no less than thrilled when it was over. She took photos of her team, photo bombed another, when a reporter was getting a shot of South teammates McLaine Hudson and Hadley Borders, and sported a wide smile for the chartered bus headed for Bowling Green.

(Reynolds reports that it was a fun ride home.)

South Warren hasn’t committed an error in its last three games, including the tense 4-2 victory over Barren County in the KHSAA 4th Region championship game. Reynolds has made this a point of emphasis in Lexington, as one of the Lady Knights’ two errors contributed to the game’s only run.

The Spartans’ pursuit of the school’s first state championship resumes on Friday against Henderson County, an 8-6 winner over tradition-rich McCracken County in the final quarterfinal of the night, while the University of Kentucky baseball squad was drubbing visiting Oregon State, 10-0, in NCAA Super Regional play at adjacent Kentucky Proud Park.

South Warren defeated Henderson County, 9-2, in the Owensboro Catholic Classic on May 4. One of the semifinalists on the other side of the bracket, Louisville’s Assumption Academy, dropped a 6-3 decision to South Warren in April. Assumption will face North Laurel (29-9) in the first semifinal game on Friday afternoon.

It proved to be Layla Ogden’s night, at UK’s John Cropp Stadium, as the 5-foot-10 sophomore pitcher hurled five hitless innings with seven strikeouts.

“This win gives us some confidence. We’re definitely ‘all in,'” Ogden said.

A showdown with Henderson County awaits.