Johnson breaks out as HCHS wins district

Five straight trips to the plate by Harlan County junior third baseman Hannah Johnson followed by five straight outs meant only one thing to HCHS coach Tim McElyea — an explosion was coming and it was coming soon.

Johnson, who was hitting well over .600 entering the tournament, broke out just as everyone around the Lady Bears expected, first with a two-run single in the second inning, then with a double in the fourth and finally with a three-run homer in the sixth that lifted Harlan County to a 9-8 win over Middlesboro in the 52nd District Tournament finals Tuesday at HCHS.

“Who else would you want up in that situation?” said McElyea, moments after he was drenched with water in a postgame celebration following the Lady Bears’ fourth straight district title. “Hannah has hit the ball all year, and I talked to her yesterday after the game about not getting down on herself. You just knew she was about to break out.”

“She’s one of the best hitters in the region,” said Middlesboro coach Petie Gilbert. “Harlan County always really battles. It was a good game.”

After giving up six runs in the first two innings, due in large part to five errors, Kerrigan Creech shut out the Lady Jackets over the next four innings. She finished with two strikeouts and one walk.

“Kerrigan has been a slow starter all year, but once she settles down she has been very good,” McElyea said. “Her changeup started working and she was locating real well.”

Destiny Clark also had a big game at the plate for the 19-6 Lady Bears with a double and single, including an insurance RBI in the top of the seventh that proved to be huge. Nikki Creech added two singles from the top of the HCHS order.

Aubrey Sowders led Middlesboro (14-18) with a double and single. Virginia Marcum singled twice. Hannah McCullough had a triple. Jamarah Young, J.J. Brown, Lindsay Buis and Kailey Owens added one single each.

Owens suffered the loss on the mound as she struck out three and walked three but couldn’t overcome seven errors.

Middlesboro scored three runs in the first inning with the help of three errors and hits by Marcum and Brown.

Harlan County answered with four runs in the second inning, all after a two-out error on a foul ball kept the inning alive. Nikki Creech singled home one run and Johnson singled in two.

The Lady Jackets scored three more runs in the bottom of the second, highlighted by a two-run single from Sowders.

The score remained 4-3 until the Lady Bears broke through with four runs in the sixth. Clark reached on an error with one out, then Allee Galloway and Nikki Creech walked to load the bases. Collett brought in a run with a sacrifice fly before Johnson hit a three-run blast to right-center on a 3-2 pitch.

Rhileigh Alred reached on an error in the seventh and scored on an insurance run on Clark’s double.

Sowders doubled and scored on McCullough’s triple in the bottom of the seventh. Brown’s sacrifice fly cut the deficit to one, but Creech struck out Buis to end the game.

The Lady Bears’ fourth consecutive district title was probably a surprise for many after they were hit hard by graduation and other losses.

“This team far exceeded my expectations,” McElyea said. “The senior leadership of Rhileigh Alred, Emily Collett and Nikki Creech has been nothing short of awesome.”

Both teams will advance to the 13th Region Tournament next week at Whitley County.

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Harlan County 040 004 1 — 9. 7. 5

Middlesboro 330 000 2 — 8. 9. 7

K. Creech and Adams; Owens and Marcum. WP — K. Creech (17-5). LP — Owens.