March 22nd, 2018

A budding rivalry: Holy Cross vs. Mercy

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Conor Revell

Managing Editor


A budding rivalry: Holy Cross vs. Mercy
Lexi Ray (baby blue jersey) and Dakota Young (white jersey) / photo by Katie Loos

Go back 10 years and there was no rivalry between the Holy Cross and Mercy softball programs.

Today, it’s one of the best softball rivalries in the area and many gather to see the rivals battle.

Mercy is led by ace Lexi Ray, who is a dominant force in the circle, and can do a lot of damage at the plate.

Holy Cross is led by slugger Dakota Young, who has hit six grand slams in the first three years of her high school career.

A budding rivalry

Some in the Mercy community say there is no rivalry as the Cougars win in 2014 was their only official win in the series history.

“We’ve always been here,” Mercy head coach Greg Meiners said. “They certainly have stepped up the past few years. Tony has built a competitive program. I think we have a much longer track record and I say that because my kids were involved.

“Before we were in the Sixth Region, we never played them. Once we got in the same region, the rivalry has evolved as Holy Cross has gotten more competitive and we like the challenge. We believe we’re still the best team in the region.”

In recent years, there truly is a rivalry, the Jaguars won the 2015 regular season game 1-0 and had to escape with a thrilling 10-inning 1-0 victory last year.

Holy Cross led 3-1 in the 2016 regular season game before storms ended the game and were unable to count it as an official contest.

“Mercy is the gold standard of the Sixth Region,” Holy Cross head coach Tony Young said. “Mercy is the standard in the Sixth Region. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.”

Indeed, Mercy is the gold standard, having won the Sixth Region title in five of the past six years. Holy Cross won the year the Jaguars were left out.

“When we play in other sports everybody looks down at us like we’re not a big name school,” Dakota Young said. “But, when it comes to softball, it’s a big rivalry and the team and community gets super excited. It’s one of the games we look forward to.”

Ray circles the game on her calendar as she went to grade school at St. Paul, which is located less than a mile south of Holy Cross on Dixie Highway.

“Every year it’s always a good game,” Ray said. “Last year it was at Holy Cross and away games are always intense. I love playing Holy Cross because I grew up close to the school. It’s intense for me and always seems to be a one run ballgame.”

The only lopsided game was when Mercy smoked the Cougars 7-1 in the 2015 Sixth Region title.

Lexi Ray, a Mercy star with Holy Cross connections

Ray has become a feared pitcher in the Sixth Region and has grown leaps and bounds since her freshman year.

“Lexi has gotten a lot stronger,” Meiners said. “Her mental approach has certainly gotten better and her maturity has grown a whole lot. She understands the situations she may get into and doesn’t let it get to her.”

Tony Young remembers a time when Ray wasn’t so dominant.

“Lexi is a great example for young kids,” Tony Young said. “I watched Lexi when she was in middle school to the point where she is now a senior. The growth she has had is absolutely phenominal. She believes in herself.

“She has great confidence and carries herself with a little bit of swagger. Lexi is an outstanding high pitcher. In order to beat a pitcher like Lexi – you have to beat her – she’s not going to give it to you.”

Ray had a fantastic junior year throwing 218 innings in the regular season with a 1.12 ERA striking out 274, walking 35, and giving up 35 earned runs.

The University of Tennessee-Martin signee became a household name during the KHSAA State Softball Tournament when she pitched her heart out – throwing 557 pitches in 28 hours and allowing 13 runs; only five earned, and struck out 27 hitters while facing the No. 1, No. 3, No. 4, No. 9, and No. 15 teams in the state.  

Ray is poised to have another year, but without her sidekick Abby Wilder who has been her catcher the past three years. Kennedy Higdon will step into Wilder’s role.

“Me and Kennedy have gotten a lot closer over the past couple of months,” Ray said. “We have been practicing together knowing what is ahead. We have been communicating a lot more. She has known me for a couple of years, but communication will be key.”

Perhaps all of these accolades could have been accomplished in a Holy Cross uniform, as that’s where her parents went.

“I’ve always found it awkward when I go to the Holy Cross vs. Mercy games,” Ray’s mother Michelle Pence said. “That’s because I know so many people there. I try to keep it somewhat neutral. The only reason Lexi goes to Mercy is because we felt it was a better fit. From the time she was a fifth grader she said she wanted to go to Mercy.”

Pence and her dad Bobby Ray, both played basketball at Holy Cross.

“It’s funny,” Lexi Ray said. “My parents loved playing and going to school here. I just wanted to be a little different and play softball and Mercy was a better fit for me.”

It will be even more of a family affair this year.

“My niece Shalon O’Bryan is a freshman there,” Pence said. “Lexi may play against her this year. I don’t know to what extent. That will be fun for our family. My mom has been at all of Lexi’s game and my brother pointed out about how nuts she goes when Lexi strikes somebody out. He joked to her that she’ll (their mom) be embarrassing him if she does that this year on the Holy Cross side.”

Dakota, the slugger who became a Holy Cross star

It’s a bit of a miracle that the Young’s are a part of the Holy Cross community as Tony pursued opportunities at other schools before ending up on Dixie Highway.

Tony moved his family from Southern Indiana and took the job Dakota’s eighth grade year and she joined her father on the diamond the following year.

It was a bit of a struggle because the two had to learn to work together and separate family and softball life.

“It’s not that difficult now,” Dakota said. “It’s kind of normal. He’s my coach in softball and my dad at home.”

The Campbellsville University signee has become one of the most feared hitters in the Sixth Region.

“I’ve seen a lot of growth over the last six years,” Tony Young said. “She was a kid that wasn’t very good and didn’t have a lot of talent; she spent a lot of time working on her own. She heard me say if you ever want to get anywhere, you’re going to have to spend time working on your own. When she steps into the batter’s box today, I have the ultimate confidence that something good is going to happen.”

Dakota’s claim to fame came when she hit two homeruns, had a double, and drove in four runs in the 2016 Sixth Region semifinal and championship games as the Cougars won their first ever regional title and played in the Worth/KHSAA Softball State Tournament the following week.

‘She is a kid that works hard,” Meiners said. “Nobody gets good without working hard. I don’t necessarily say we’re going to pitch around her, but you have to go work around her. You can’t let one player beat you like Dakota can with her swing.”

Dakota will be one of the state’s top power hitters and with her swing; the father-daughter duo could become the first group to ever win four straight All “A” Classic Statewide Softball titles.

Sixth Region outlook

When you have a pitcher like Ray, it’s hard to not pick Mercy to make a return trip to the state tournament.

Ray will have help. Fellow senior Lexy Wright is a terrific senior shortstop while Madison Dykes, another senior, has a dangerous bat.

“We leaned on Lexi and won some close games,” Meiners said. “We had some excellent leadership last year and that’s something I am trying to instill in these kids this year. We still have five seniors, but five different personalities, so that will be a challenge.”

The Cougars will be right behind the Jaguars and hope to turn last year’s disappointing first round Sixth Region loss into joy.

“What we learned last year is that in order to believe in your team, you have to believe in yourself,” Tony Young said. “If you believe you’re the best player, you will be the best teammate and be the best team. It all starts with believing in yourself and your teammates.”

Bella Velez and Carson Goatley figure to lead Holy Cross in the circle while Maddi Gailor, Kadi Weaver, Amber Kaufman, Goatley, and Velez will have key roles in the batting order along with Dakota.

“This year is going to be different,” Dakota Young said. “The players we lost I have played with for a long time. We have a lot of new players coming in this year, they’re talented, and it will be a lot different, but a good different.”

As for the rest of the Sixth Region, Pleasure Ridge Park could make a run, Butler will be young, but talented, and the question mark is Bullitt East.

“Every team is going to lose players every year,” Tony Young said. “These programs immediately rebuild through the success of the program. There’s no doubt that the usual four – us, Mercy, Butler, and Bullitt East will be fine.

“I truly believe PRP may be one of the stronger teams in the region. They return a lot; they have experience, and got a lot of confidence by beating us in the district championship. I believe PRP may be right up there with us and Mercy.”

It’ll be a fun spring, but Dakota and Ray both know only one team gets to go to Owensboro in June.

 

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