BY JAMES COLLIER
FOR THE ASHLAND BEACON
Something that has been missing from Ashland softball has finally returned after a three-year hiatus.
A regional title.
With a 12-0 shellacking of Raceland in the 16th Region Championship contest, Ashland secured its first regional crown since 2015 after winning seven straight from 2009-15.
Ashland’s run to the title came in a 10-0 win over Lewis County in the opening round, a 2-1 victory of Rowan County in the semis and the hammering of Raceland for the title. The Kittens were paced by seniors Haylie Haney and Mykayla Akers inside the circle who allowed only one run the entire tournament. Their offensive support was lights out on two occasions with the other as dead as skipper Scott Ingram’s battery on his truck.
After pouring on 10 runs on 10 hits in the win over Lewis County, Ashland managed only two runs on six hits against Rowan County and Ingram was quick to compare his recent car troubles to his offense.
“I stopped to get a drink and my battery light had come on yesterday,” Ingram said after the Rowan win. “I stopped and turned off my truck today and come back out and it was dead. I had to get a jump. I thought I was going to have to go get those booster cables for our offense tonight, but we had just enough.”
Ingram laughed before the championship with Raceland, saying he had replaced the battery in his truck and hoped it helped his offense. After a 15-hit performance that produced 12 runs, one might argue it certainly did the trick.
While the eighth regional crown will hold a special meaning for the five seniors who depart this season, for three of them, it means a little bit more as they were freshmen on the team in 2016 when the streak of seven ceased in a 2-0 loss to East Carter in the semifinals.
THE STREAK ENDS
For nearly three-quarters of a decade, the 16th Region crown went through Ashland. At the helm of Dave Miller and Scott Ingram, the Kittens set the bar for 16th Region softball until East Carter and current Alabama pitcher Montana Fouts derailed their quest for eight.
“It was awful walking off the field knowing you were the team that just did it,” senior Zoe Ingram said. “It was expected to bring (the title) back every year. Everyone expected Ashland to bring it home. We walked off that field and I don’t even think (Coach Ingram) had anything to say. I mean, what can you say. I try to forget about that day.”
Akers, who is headed to KCU in the fall with Haney to pitch, said she will never forget the loss.
“No one wants to be on the team that breaks the streak,” Akers said. “Thank goodness we got it back this year. It was devastating and even though we were only freshmen, it doesn’t matter. You are still wearing those Ashland colors. You want to represent for your school and community. To lose that streak, it definitely was hard.”
Kittens’ second baseman Maddy Greene said while she was on the field very little, the loss still cut just as deep.
“Knowing that you were the ones who lost it, you really don’t have words for it,” Greene said. “Sitting in the dugout and watching the team you had rooted on all year not get to take it home, its heartbreaking.”
THE REMATCH NO ONE EXPECTED
Entering the 2017 postseason, Ashland sat at a 12-21 record with little expectations from anyone of making a deep run. However, Ashland upset Boyd County 10-6 in the District Championship, defeated Russell 6-5 in the opening round of regionals and found itself back in the title affair after a 13-5 beating of Rowan County. Opposite the Kittens in the final game? Who else but the giant killers in East Carter who were one of the hottest teams in the entire state.
The expectations in the game was an East Carter blowout en route to their second consecutive 16th Region title. But the outcome was anything but.
Trailing 2-0 and hitless going into the seventh, Ashland poked a pair of singles to right and had runners at second and third with only one out. Unfortunately for the Kittens, a pair of strikeouts ended their season and upset bid but started the rebuilding toward reclaiming their place at the top of the region’s best.
“We were a hit away that year,” Zoe Ingram said. “We had runners on second and third. All I remember was Sydney Campbell saying, ‘I’m going to be the last out of my last high school game.’ I said, no you’re not and we got up there and started a little rally. That gave us some confidence the next year because if we could do that without anyone expecting us, we can do it again the next year.”
Akers was inside the circle for the Kittens in the loss.
“It so devastating knowing you were so close,” she said. “That was the year I got to pitch in it and as a pitcher, too, you put it all-out there and you fall short. No one likes the feeling of losing in the regional championship, but I was proud of my team for getting there that year.”
Scott Ingram said everyone on the team learned a valuable lesson that season, him included.
“It doesn’t matter if you are 10-21 or 25-0 going into the regional tournament, we’ve all got a shot at it,” he said. “It was a big learning experience for them, and it was for me, too. I learned a ton that year as well. I had not been a part of that. We had been pretty successful my first couple of years here. We had to make some adjustments. I had to make some adjustments. It was good for all of us.”
COMING IN LOOSE
Coming into the 2019 regional tournament, Ashland had lost three in a row including being shut out twice. That is when Coach Ingram knew something had to change.
“We had a pretty good year and the last week of the regular season, I don’t know if it was because we were getting to tournament time, but it just seemed like we were pressing,” Scott Ingram said. “We were pitching well and playing pretty good defense, but at the plate, if we didn’t score those first couple three innings, we just started pressing.”
He added: “I don’t know if the pressure was getting to us, but we just emphasized trying to have fun. It’s a game, it’s supposed to be fun, let’s just play hard and have fun. I think it was something that sparked us and credit to them for doing that.”
It was no secret the Kittens needed a change and one player on the team the five seniors immediately credited for the plans was sophomore catcher Lauren Spears.
When the Ashland bus rolled into Boyd County’s softball complex for the regional championship, onlookers may have confused a team that was seeking its first regional crown in four years for a group headed for a Hawaiian getaway as players were dressed in leis, grass skirts, coconut bras and singing the entire way to the dugout.
“The atmosphere on the bus is great because it’s like the pregame before you get ready to start taking ground balls and get ready for the game,” Haney said. “For each bus ride, we have our music going and our outfits on. We are just loose and carefree. We know what we are capable of doing so why not have fun while we are doing it. Definitely paid off for us in the Regional Tournament.”
Greene echoed the words of her fellow senior.
“We were hyped,” she said. “We were ready to go. We knew what we were capable of so why not just go have fun and just leave it all-out there.”
But the pregame shenanigans were just getting started for the Kittens.
RIDE THAT CHICKEN
Prior to the announcement of the starters this season, Ashland could be seen circling up outside the dugout singing, “C’mon, ride that chicken.” It was a tradition the seniors credited to their ability to stay loose when the pressure rose.
“We did it one game last year and that was it,” Zoe Ingram said. “This year—it’s from church camp, that’s where we learned it—we brought it back and (Scott) was the one who really got into it at church camp. Someone’s bus was late, so I was like, let’s just ride that chicken. So, we taught them, and we kept going and going and it got us hyped.”
After a successful transition into a pregame ritual for the Kittens, Zoe said the team was not about to turn away from the silly fun.
“We were like, hey, let’s do this every game,” Zoe said. “It’s fun. We’ve done it every game and I really don’t know what the meaning is to it, but our coaches tell us to ride the chicken hard now. They say we play better when we ride it hard.”
Akers was part of the original crew that created the dance at church camp several years ago.
“We were in I think sixth grade and hey, it was cool in sixth grade,” Akers said. “When you were in sixth grade you were like this is sweet and now, you’re a senior and you are like, this is so goofy. But we just don’t care. I know the other teams are like, why are they saying come on Mykayla, ride that chicken. It’s just one of those things. Its goofy, funny, lighthearted and I think we all enjoy it.”
Ashland third baseman Ruthie Paholsky said she will never forget her first time in the dance circle.
“Not going to lie, the first time a person came to me to ride the chicken I was like, what the heck?” Paholsky said. “I’m not doing this, but I did it. I think it just loosens me up and gets my nerves gone. It just gets me ready to play.”
GOING OUT ON TOP
Whether it be a dead battery, a silly Hawaiian outfit or riding a chicken, Ashland found its groove at the right time. But with all the special memories created in the title run, a couple stood above the rest.
Greene celebrated her 18th birthday on the night of the championship but admitted the special day was the farthest thing from her mind as the team started celebrating the win.
“After the game I wasn’t thinking it was my birthday,” Greene said. “I was thinking we just won a region title. Then people started singing and I was like, oh yeah, it is my birthday.”
Assistant coach Brad Hamilton tried to reassure Greene of her special day in pregame but was promptly reminded that special can have two opposite meanings.
“Before the game I was talking to Brad and he said, ‘this might just be the best birthday present of your life,’” Greene said. “I looked at him and said yeah, but it could also go the complete opposite.”
For the Ingrams, it was a chance for coach to become dad and share the special moment with his daughter.
“It’s pretty special because I saw him do it with Gabby her junior year,” Zoe said of her older sister. “It’s awesome just following in the footsteps of her and getting to go to state with him. I also saw her lose it her senior year, so I was like, I’m doing this for the team but I’m also doing this for her.”
Gabby was a senior on the 2016 Ashland team.
“She was at every single game this year,” Zoe said of her older sister. “Getting to see her getting excited for me to experience that with him was awesome.”
But after all the celebration with his daughter, Coach Ingram had one final deal he had to uphold after the win as he and Coach Hamilton entered the ring to “Ride That Chicken.”
“They had all their Hawaii gear on, and they tried to get me to put some of the stuff on, so I put on one of the leis,” Scott Ingram said of the team prior to the game. “(Laruen) Spears was like, ‘put the bra on, put the bra on,’ and I was like, no. If we win it, I’ll put that bra on. Then she asked me if I’d wear the skirt too and I said sure, I’ll wear it all Lauren. I had to be true to my word.”
Ashland hopes to ride that chicken to a win over Warren East Friday in the Elite 8 of the State Tournament being held in Lexington.