|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Joseph Martin connects with one in Tuesday's 11-5 win over Simon Kenton. Martin is batting .426 with four home runs on the season.|
Just more than halfway into the regular season, the Highlands Bluebirds have not disappointed posting a record of 18-4 including a 5-0 mark against 9th Region competition. The Bluebirds boast 12 seniors on the roster and many of them contributed to last year's run to the region title game that ended with a 3-0 loss to Conner.
The Bluebirds have won four in a row. They've rallied in all four games.
"We've done a great job of staying the course," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "They understand it's a seven-inning game. You're going to win very few games in the first few innings. You have to get them out 21 times and they have to get you out 21 times."
The Bluebirds have put things together offensively, defensively and pitching consistently all season. That's why they've outscored opponents, 180-86. Only Beechwood has scored more runs in the region with 192.
Highlands knew it would have a deep pitching staff. The team has an earned-run average of 3.17 with 140 strikeouts, 54 walks, 136 hits and 68 earned runs. Junior Ricky Raisor is a team-high 5-0 on the season with a save and Lou Bunning is second at 4-1. Jacob Noe and Joseph Martin have one save each. Noe, Martin, Mitch Jones and Ethan Doty have two wins each. Raisor leads the Bluebirds with 33 strikeouts.
The Bluebirds have seen 12 different players pitch this season. Some may not take the mound as much as others. But they've tried to get the job done when they are called into action. For example, senior Grayson got the last out against Bishop Brossart on Monday in the sixth inning in his lone appearance of the season.
"I hadn't pitched in a while," Heck said. "I just went out there and focused on throwing strikes - not overstriding or overthrowing. I don't pitch often. It shows how good this pitching staff is. Every batter counts. One at-bat can change the game so getting that one out was pretty impressive."
Highlands has used three pitchers in games throughout the season. That means catchers like Luke Hennigan and Kyle Rust have to adjust to each one at various points of the game.
"I just take it as I would another game," Rust said. "I just communicate with (the pitchers) and figure out what they throw. I don't have any control on calling the pitches. That's Coach Baioni. But I am the one who signals the pitches."
Defensively, Highlands is fielding .958 as a team. The Bluebirds have committed just 27 errors on the season and have turned eight double plays. That's an average of about 1.2 errors per game. No one has more than five errors on the season.
Then the offense has been great lately. The Bluebirds have hit .367 (239-of-652) on the season. That includes 42 doubles, seven triples and 18 home runs. Four players who have seen action in at least 12 games this season are batting above .400 in Todd Ramey (.486, 13 walks, five home runs, three triples, 37 RBI, 29 runs scored, nine doubles), Martin (.426, nine walks, four home runs, nine, nine doubles, 19 RBI), Jake Whitford (.418, four walks, four home runs, three doubles, 21 RBI, three doubles, 14 runs scored) and Conner Kreeger (.409, eight walks, 10 RBI, one triple, three doubles, 10 RBI, 21 runs scored).
Highlands has hit half of its home runs in the two recent games. The Bluebirds hit four against Bishop Brossart on Monday and five more against Simon Kenton on Tuesday.
The Bluebirds have also excelled in stealing bases this year. They have 49 swipes on the year and have been caught just five times. Brady Murray leads Highlands with 10 steals while Ramey has eight. Alex Veneman is third with seven.
"You have to be aggressive, but you can't be stupid when running," Veneman said. "We've been taught really well. You round the base every time and make sure it's good enough to get (to the next base) listening to your coaches. It's about pure speed."
Highlands has not only been playing a tough schedule, but beating some tough opponents across the Ohio River from the Greater Catholic League South. The Bluebirds own wins at Elder and La Salle. Elder owns 12 state championships including at least one per decade going back to the 1950s.
Highlands will face Cincinnati St. Xavier on Friday for Senior Day/Fan Appreciation Day. The Bombers have one state title in school history. The celebration begins at 4:30 p.m. and the first pitch will be at 5:30 p.m. Baioni said activities for the day will include pictures with the Blue Bird and warming up with the players on the field.
The Bluebirds then travel to Covington Catholic on Saturday. They take on the six-time Ohio state champion Cincinnati Moeller at 1 p.m. before facing the Colonels at 1 p.m.
"We've always wanted to play those teams because they're traditionally good and competing for state titles in Division I in Ohio every single year," Baioni said. "That makes us better. They have guys they run out that throw the ball hard from the top of the staff to the bottom of the staff. It prepares us for the postseason. They're as good as you're going to see anywhere."
Highlands has 15 games left on the schedule. That includes make-up games against Dayton and Newport in 36th District play.
The Bluebirds play host to Walton-Verona on Thursday. Game time is 5:30 p.m.