PIKEVILLE, Ky. (WYMT) - There are a handful of high school softball programs in the eastern half of Kentucky that are competitive at the state level. In fact, Middlesboro and North Laurel are the only two to win a state title. It's taken some time, but the rest of the region is slowly catching up to programs from the western side of the state.
If you follow high school softball in Kentucky, it's easy to see the difference in competition between the western and eastern parts of the state but the gap is quickly closing, and coaches are taking notice.
"It's amazing how much it has grown (in Eastern Kentucky)," says Steven Murphy, head softball coach at Glasgow High School. "I've been a head coach now for five years, and at the class A level and at the state level, that we see, teams are highly developed and they're very competitive."
"The younger girls, the young ladies that are getting involved in the sport now. It's just tremendous for our area here in the Mountains," adds J.D. Hughes, who will be entering his first year as head coach of the Pikeville High School softball program.
For the past two years, players in Eastern Kentucky have been treated to special instruction from Olympic gold medalist Jennie Finch, and it's things like Finch's camp that have led to the increased interest in the sport.
"The talent level that we see here, it gets better and better each and every year, and things like this, Jennie Finch, her second year here, that just adds to the growing, the interest," says Hughes.
"Softball is a growing sport here and it's so exciting to see the growth of it," says Finch, a member of the United States' gold medal team in the 2004 Olympic Games. "It's so fun to come to these small towns and see the excitement and love for the game."
You just have to look at the last two seasons to see the improved play on the field. Both Pikeville and Magoffin County have recently made runs to the semifinals of the All 'A' state tournament.
"We wanted to take advantage of the talent that we have here in Eastern Kentucky, so I think maybe that's a lot of reason for the growth," says Sean Cochran, Director of Attractions for the City of Pikeville. "It's been phenomenal, it really is. We just can't say enough about what's going on."
And if the trend continues, maybe it won't be too much longer before a team returns home as softball state champion.