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PREP SOFTBALL: Fort Knox beats John Hardin (05/20)

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By Nathaniel Bryan

More than once this year, the Fort Knox softball team has gotten off to a strong start, only to fade.

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On Monday night for the fifth-seeded Lady Eagles, there was no letdown. Just more momentum.

The middle-school Nieto sisters — eighth-grade catcher Olivia and seventh-grade shortstop Natalie — combined for four runs, three stolen bases, three RBIs and three hits and the Lady Eagles used a huge first inning to power their way to a 13-2 rout of the fourth-seeded John Hardin Lady Bulldogs in the 17th District Tournament’s lone quarterfinal at Fort Knox.

“It was really exciting to see us keep that enthusiasticness for the entire game instead of losing it,” said Olivia Nieto, who went 2-for-3 with two runs, two stolen bases and an RBI while drawing a walk as the Lady Eagles’ leadoff hitter.

The outcome was technically an upset, but Fort Knox beat John Hardin in the teams’ first regular-season meeting, which allowed the Lady Eagles to earn their first win against a district foe since knocking off Elizabethtown 5-2 on April 29, 2010. While Fort Knox and John Hardin both entered 1-7 in district play, John Hardin got the higher seed by virtue of the Lady Bulldogs’ win over the Lady Eagles in the teams’ second regular-season meeting.

The Lady Eagles won a playoff game for the first time since before 2000 — the KHSAA’s online scoreboard only goes back that far — and earned their first district tournament semifinal berth since 2008, when the third-seeded Lady Eagles lost to second-seeded Central Hardin.

“With it being against John Hardin, losing again was not an option,” said Olivia Nieto. “We were going to come out and play as hard as we could against them.”

The Lady Eagles put up six runs in the top of the first — while Fort Knox was playing at home, it was still the visitor by virtue of being the lower seed — thanks in part to four hits, two walks, two passed balls, four stolen bases and two errors.

That was more than enough offensive support for winning pitcher Taylor Stephenson. The freshman walked six but struck out three and allowed just one hit — a two-out single to freshman second baseman Faith Walters in the second.

“We came out with an enthusiastic spirit and just blew them away in the first inning,” said Stephenson, who helped her cause with a single and an RBI.

The Lady Eagles extended their lead to 7-0 in the second before the Lady Bulldogs showed signs of life by plating two runs in the second after Stephenson got into some trouble with two walks and two wild pitches.

With runners at second and third and the Lady Bulldogs’ outfield inching toward the infield dirt, Natalie Nieto belted a two-run triple to left field. John Hardin threw the ball away as Natalie Nieto never stopped and was rounding third and she beat the throw with a slide into home.

“This team thrives off the enthusiasm they instill in each other,” Fort Knox coach Rick Thompson said. “When they keep it up like that, they can play pretty good.”

It figures Fort Knox will have to play well again today in order to keep the Lady Eagles’ run alive. Top-seeded Central Hardin (30-4-1) awaits in the semifinals at 5:30 after receiving a first-round bye.

“I know why people say they’re a big scary team,” Stephenson said, “but we want to go out and show we can play right with them.”

Central Hardin, which is shooting for its fifth straight district tournament title, outscored its opposition 122-1 in its eight regular-season district games.

“It’s not impossible for us to beat them,” said Olivia Nieto. “With the enthusiasticness that we have been playing with, we could beat them. If not, we should at least play as hard as we can and show we don’t have to be an easy pushover,”

Regardless of what happens today, Fort Knox girls’ sports made a bit of history with two postseason wins. Fort Knox senior third baseman Christina Rice (single, run, stolen base) and sophomore outfielder Bailey Rasmussen (single, two RBIs, two runs) both played huge roles when fifth-seeded Fort Knox defeated fourth-seeded North Hardin in a shootout in the girls’ soccer district tournament quarterfinals in the fall.

“I think soccer was bigger because we had to fight harder to win that one and it surprised more people,” Rasmussen said. “But either way, it feels great to be a part of two teams to do something that Fort Knox doesn’t do a whole lot.”

FORT KNOX 13, JOHN HARDIN 2

R H E

Fort Knox 615 10 13 9 1

John Hardin 020 00 2 1 10

Taylor Stephenson and Olivia Nieto. Ally Furnish and Melodi Haught. WP: Stephenson. LP: Furnish. 3B: Natalie Nieto (FK).

Nathaniel Bryan can be reached at 270-505-1758 or nbryan@thenewsenterprise.com.