Happy 'Hawks

Nani Valencia, left, and Bianca Ward of Great Crossing softball jump for joy after the first of Valencia’s two home runs Saturday. GC routed Madison Central, 8-0, in the quarterfinals of the 11th Region softball tournament.

There was something odd, strange and curious about the barrage of extra-base hits from Great Crossing softball during the district tournament: Not many of them were off the bat of senior slugger Nani Valencia.

Faced with the reality of her final home game Saturday morning, and with every date now potentially the last of a phenomenal high school career, Valencia started launching rockets from home plate to Stamping Ground once again.

Two mammoth home runs, the Western Kentucky University-bound Valencia’s seventh and eighth of the season, provided the bookends to an 8-0 dismissal of Madison Central in the 11th Region quarterfinals.

“I was definitely struggling. I think I was in my own head, just a little nervous. It’s my last time, and I think I let the pressure get to me,” Valencia said. 

“But today everyone had my back, and I was just like, ‘Be Nani. Just do what you do and don’t let any pressure get to you,’ so I’m glad I got my swag back.”

Most athletes would love to “struggle” the way Valencia did earlier in the week — she was 2-for-6 with a triple and three RBIs in two district playoff games. But a GC lineup that has sometimes looked top-heavy against other elite opponents couldn’t afford even a shred of self-doubt from its most experienced star heading into the later rounds of the tournament.

“She and I had a little discussion after districts just to clear her head and make it right,” Great Crossing coach Jeff Portwood said. “I think she was a little uptight. Postseason has a tendency to do that, but she came out loose today.”

Valencia sandwiched a two-run missile in the first inning and a solo rocket in the sixth around a single, giving her three of GC’s eight hits. RBI doubles by Kendall Meade and Layne Ogle also helped the Warhawks (23-7) rip it open.

It was wide margin for error on a day when junior left-hander Ogle didn’t need it. Her three-hit, no-walk masterpiece featured only one strikeout but was marked by masterful location.

As a testament to Ogle’s artful brushing of the corners, third base Camryn Lookadoo and right fielder Cadee Baker handled 11 of the Indians’ 21 outs.

“I think I came out today more confident in myself and my defense. They kept me up. The hitting kept me up. Everything was going right and just went smoothly today,” Ogle said. “If we hit, we’re going to win. Our defense is rock-solid. We’ve made all the easy plays, and we also make the spectacular plays that win games. If we just have the hitting, I think we’ll go very far.”

Great Crossing scored all its runs with two out. Delani Sullivan singled ahead of Valencia’s rip to left in the opening frame.

“The first one was a little low, and I love low pitches,” Valencia said. “The second one was right there for me down the middle, and I love that too, so I couldn’t picture making my last at-bats at home any better.”

Baker made a sliding catch, and Ogle followed with her only whiff to strand Madison Kaylor on base after a double in the top of the second.

It remained a two-run margin until the fifth, when the Warhawks’ first-pitch-swinging tactics finally paid off against Kaylor. Bianca Ward, Valencia and Meade smashed consecutive hits, with the sophomore Meade plating a pair.

The Warhawks broke it open with additional hits by Destiney Reed, Ogle and Brooklynn Booth to highlight a five-run rally in which they sent 10 to the plate.

“We came in with a plan to be aggressive. We knew (Kaylor) was going to bring the drop ball. We were trying to get on it early,” Portwood said. “It was good to see the bottom of our order cranking it up. If we get one through nine going, we’ll be dangerous.”

Riley McAllister made a sliding grab in left field to end the top of the sixth prior to Valencia’s curtain call.

“We hit better as a team when we’re more aggressive,” Valencia said. “That’s what we’ve learned throughout the year. Coach just told us before the game just go out and hack it, and if it’s there, hit it. There’s no sense in waiting for the second or third pitch if it’s there the first one.”

Ogle retired 12 of the final 13 hitters from Madison Central (22-9-1).

Two of the state’s consensus top 10 teams met in Monday’s semis when GC faced Lexington Catholic.

“We’ve been mostly every practice hitting, hitting, hitting, because that’s where our weakness is right now,” Ogle said. “We’re finally getting more confident, just focusing and trying to put the bat on the ball, and I think that worked really well.”

Kal Oakes can be reached via email at sports@news-graphic.com.

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