LEXINGTON — This year's Scott County softball team wasn't destined to put another KHSAA state championship in the trophy case, but these Lady Cards' fighting spirit was second to none.
SC went down slugging Tuesday night in what was surely one of the wildest regional semifinals played anywhere in the state this week.
No. 23 Madison Southern finally put it away by scoring twice to break a tie in the bottom of the sixth inning, then holding off one more furious Scott County rally, 10-9, at Tates Creek High School.
On the heels of state titles in 2014, 2016 and 2018, the Lady Cards (21-12) fell shy of their eighth consecutive trip to the regional final. But the new edition's penchant for crazy comebacks all season likely had spectators on both sides thinking this 2 1/2-hour marathon would end the same way.
“We scored a run in the top of the seventh, had the tying run at first. We thought (we would win) to the end,” SC coach Jeff Portwood said. “It's unfortunate, but that's the way it goes. They did play their hearts out.”
Trailing by two runs, No. 14 Scott County fired one final series of haymakers in the seventh.
Madison Scott walked, scampered to second on a passed ball and beat the tag at home on Ashley Adkins' second clutch hit of the night.
Madison Southern starter Kayla Pigg was forced to re-enter after her coach's second visit to the circle that inning. She immediately benefited from the play of the game: Lady Eagles' catcher Alicia Venter's pinpoint throw to Payton Griffith to stymie pinch runner Delani Sullivan's attempted steal.
Bianca Ward drew a two-out walk, but it was sandwiched between Pigg's fifth and sixth strikeouts of the night to close it out. The gloves and blue-and-orange caps strewn about the infield in celebration contradicted anyone's claim that it wasn't a big deal, or an upset.
“That's a good feeling for these kids to know they're a hard out. It's a tough group,” Portwood said. “Sometimes you've got to give credit to the other team. They played well. They really did. It was a long night. Very tight ball game. Both teams adjusted. Both teams never gave up and just battled to the end.”
Madison Southern (27-8) advanced for the first time since 2006 to the regional final, where it was scheduled to face Woodford County on Wednesday night. Woodford and SC had faced off in that round four years in a row.
Momentum twists in this stomach-churning quest to get there again were many, quick and authoritative.
Nani Valencia and Carly Oliver each belted a go-ahead home run for SC, furnishing leads of 2-0 in the top of the first and 5-2 in the second.
Tessa Juett and Kennadi Story countered with blasts for the Eagles to tie it at five, only to see a double by Alyssa Woolums and a single from Ward restore SC's lead.
“We've got kids that stepped up,” Portwood said. “A lot of them are first-year starters, and what they proved this year, what they showed, I'm pretty proud of them.”
An error and four consecutive walks gave Madison Southern its first advantage in the bottom of the fourth, but it was fittingly short-lived.
Valencia and Savannah Merriman greeted left-handed reliever Juett with singles. Scott then walked before Adkins' two-run rope down the right field line made it 8-7.
Juett slammed the door with two strikeouts and a ground ball, however, and the Eagles tied it in their half of the fifth on an RBI double by Zaria Carter.
A rare 1-2-3 inning gave Southern the chance to jump back in front. Juett's one-out double, a single by Sam Cornelison, Story's sacrifice fly and an RBI by Pigg inflicted the damage.
Juett, Cornelison and Griffith each had two of Madison Central's 10 hits against Valencia and Katlyn Mullins, who inherited the jam in the fourth.
Oliver and Adkins each went 2-for-4 with three RBIs for the Lady Cards. Merriman and Valencia also had two hits apiece.
Ten seniors graduated into the college game from the team that lost only two one-run games and stormed to the state title a year ago. Oliver, Woolums and Sam Sims, all of whom will play at the next level, are the only 2019 graduates.
“That's kind of what I told them. 'A lot of people wrote you off this year.' I don't know how many wins we ended up with, 21 or 22, but nobody expected that,” Portwood said. “We had a very good run.”
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.