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Vandebilt heads to state tournament red hot

Vandebilt Catholic senior shortstop Kristen Kurtz will help lead the Lady Terriers into the Fastpitch 56 Tournament, which runs Friday through Saturday in Sulphur. (Photo by Chris Heller/Staff)

As her team's starting catcher, Vandebilt Catholic junior Erin Crane may have the best overall perspective on the quality in which the Lady Terriers are playing at any given point of a season.

And as the No. 1 Vandebilt enters the Fastpitch 56 Tournament in Sulphur for a Class 4A first-round game against No. 8 St. Thomas More at noon on Friday on Field 13 of Frasch Park, Crane likes what she sees.

"We have some good momentum going into the playoffs," Crane said of the 24-6 Lady Terriers. "We are really a team right now. Everyone is doing their best and coming together."

A win on Friday would push the Lady Terriers to the semifinals and possibly finals, both on Saturday at Frasch Park.

In preparing for the playoffs this season, the Lady Terriers, who are gunning for the 15th state softball title in school history, have won six in a row, including wins over Class 2A powers Riverside Academy (26-7) and John Curtis Christian (29-1), and they have playoff wins over Bolton and Assumption. Vandebilt is 19-2 in its last 21 games.

"I feel like we are playing the best we have played all year," Lady Terriers coach Margaret Johnson said. "Toward the end of the regular season we were hitting the ball well. Nora (Keehn) was pitching well, and our defense has really gained a lot of confidence. I think one of the biggest differences between us now and early on is that we are really fighting for seven innings. We are going up against a really good STM team, and we are going to have to fight until the bitter end."

Johnson said a battle is what she is expecting against St. Thomas More (17-7).

"They always have great athletics at St. Thomas More," Johnson said. "We have scouted them. We know they are a very good-hitting team. They have a lot of confidence in their offense. They have a lot of power. They are young in their hitting and catching, but their catcher is probably one of their best athletes. I don't look at them at No. 8. Like I told our team, ranking means nothing right now. STM is probably a Top 4 team, and we are definitely evenly matched."

Lady Terriers senior second baseman Makelle Peña, one of five seniors on the squad, said the Lady Terriers learned a lot after falling on Day 1 and in the quarterfinal round last season in Sulphur.

"We got closer as a team with more leadership," Peña said. "When something goes wrong, you can't let it drag on. You have to stop it at that point and stop the bleeding as soon as you can. You just have to play with everything you have. We have been practicing for this the whole year. We just have to make the right plays at the right time."

Keehn, sophomore, is in her first year as the full-time starter in the circle for Vandebilt.

"She has grown so much this season. She is so young, and going into the state tournament there is so much pressure, but I think she is going to handle it really well," Crane said. "Everyone is backing her up. We all work together and play off each other. I hope we play like we have been playing, do our best and leave it all on the field."

Keehn said she feels strong at this point of the season and has leaned on seniors Peña, Carly Ellender, Courtney Lovoi, Tayla Songe and Kristen Kurtz for support.

"I am a little nervous, but my teammates are getting me through it," Keehn said. "Some of the seniors have been saying there is nothing to be nervous about. I think my pitches have gotten a lot better through the year. I can last longer in the games, and my legs aren't as tired. We just need to get a game plan and stick together and be a team. We need to know we can do it but not be too cocky about it."

After missing last season with a shoulder injury, Kurtz, an all-state shortstop as a sophomore, said the Lady Terriers are focused and ready.

"We are definitely peaking at the right time," Kurtz said. "We had a shaky start, but we have come through. We have a young pitcher, and it's about her confidence. Our seniors have definitely taken it upon ourselves to make sure she knows we have her back. It will take teamwork and heart. It's all mental from here on out. I hope we take it all the way."

Johnson said she has been proud of the team's five seniors and their ability to lead and support the young pitcher.

"Kudos to our seniors. It shows what kind of leadership we have here," Johnson said. "These girls go and talk to Nora a lot, and Nora has really grown a lot this year. I have talked to her off and on, but sometimes it's better when it comes from the players. Nora knows that it's not all on her shoulders. We are a team. We will win as a team and we will lose as a team."