|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. The Highlands players celebrate after winning the 9th Region title Wednesday. The Bluebirds will make their first state tournament appearance since 1973.|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior and Tournament Most Valuable Player Jake Whitford (4) goes up to make a play.|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Brady Murray slides in safely in the third inning to score the game's first run. He came all the way around from first base on the play.|
The third time proved to be the charm Wednesday when the Kentucky High School Baseball Coach Association Poll's 20th-ranked Bluebirds (32-6 overall) exploded for a 7-0 win over the Ryle Raiders (21-17) to capture their first region crown since back-to-back titles in 1996 and 1997 at University of Cincinnati Medical Center Stadium. Highlands had scored just once in the region title game appearances in 2012 in a 3-1 loss to Newport Central Catholic and a 3-0 loss to Conner last year.
"I'm so proud of these guys," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "Some of these guys have been with the program for six years. We had six, seven (pitchers) ready to go, but (the pitching approach) was based on the score, inning and pitches thrown."
Highlands will face the 1st Region winner and top-ranked McCracken County Mustangs (33-2) in the state tournament Monday at Lexington's Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Game time is 8:30 p.m. The only two Mustang losses came to Bartlett (Tennessee) in the middle of April. Bartlett is a Memphis suburb.
It took some time to figure out Ryle starting pitcher Troy Coleman. But the Bluebird offense clicked on the second run through the order. Highlands scored twice in the third then put some distance from Ryle with five unearned in the fourth taking advantage of three Raider errors in that frame. The Raiders had four errors total.
Brady Murray reached in his first three at-bats going 2-for-3 with two runs scored and a stolen base for Highlands. Tournament Most Valuable Player Jake Whitford also went 2-for-3 with a double and two runs batted in and Grayson Heck also went 2-for-3 with a run scored.
"We were just a little tight in the beginning," Whitford said. "As the game went along, we loosened up. We sat back on fastballs. We hit balls with runners on and started putting pressure on fielders."
Sophomore Ethan Doty started for Highlands. He pitched into the sixth inning striking out seven and walking just two. He allowed just two base runners in the first five innings. Neither advanced past second as Highlands played solid defense again making just one error on a pop-up in foul ground in the fourth inning.
"My buddies have been riding me for a few days thinking I wasn't going to get in," Doty said. "But ever since they knew I'd get this game, they have been supporting me. I didn't believe it until now and I just gave (Coach Baioni) a big hug. I had to win it for my buddies."
Ryle loaded the bases in the sixth inning with two out. But Ricky Raisor came in and got Jake Ziegelmeyer to ground into a force out to end the threat before Mitch Jones finished things off in the seventh. Jones retired the side striking out two.
The Highlands pitchers needed to keep Ryle off the bases to limit chances of stolen bases. The Raiders swiped eight in the semifinals against Newport Central Catholic but had just one against Highlands as just six batters reached base. That came in the first inning when Nathan Roe stole second. Highlands catcher Luke Hennigan threw out Brady Ast trying to take second in the sixth.
Murray began the first inning with a single. Two batters later, he took off and Todd Ramey singled to deep right. Murray hustled around third and scored when Ryle made an error trying to throw home. Another successful hit-and-run moved Ramey to third before D.J. Mills singled him home to make it 2-0 Bluebirds.
"I thought (Coach Baioni) was waving me home but apparently, he told me to stop," Murray said. "I didn't see it so I just going full force. We're not going to back down from anybody."
Highlands saw Luke Hennigan get hit by a pitch to open the fourth inning and Kyle Rust ran for him. The Bluebirds loaded the bases when Grayson Heck and Alex Veneman laid down perfect bunt singles.
"It seems like it's a different person every week," Baioni said. "We struggled in year's past being anxious. I think we had a better approach at the plate. I think that was due to experience. They had confidence and did a good job offensively of hitting better pitches."
Ryle brought in Trent Mills to pitch and Murray hit one to Ryle shorstop Max Lonneman in the drawn-in infield. Lonneman tried to throw Rust out at home, but the throw was wild and Grayson Heck came in on another wild Ryle throw in the same sequence to give Highlands a 4-0 advantage.
Conner Kreeger then reached on another Raider error scoring Veneman to increase the advantage to 5-0. Whitford then doubled in Murray and Kreeger to make the final score.
Highlands has been to the state tournament three times in school history. The last appearance came in 1973. The Bluebirds lost 8-4 to Reidland in the quarterfinals that year. Reidland combined with Heath and Lone Oak to form McCracken County High two years ago.
"We've told our guys all year we're not worried about what the other team is doing, how the good they are or who they are throwing," Baioni said. "We're going to worry about what we can do. Sometimes, that could be sitting back and taking big swings. Some days, that might be playing small ball and moving runners. Once you're in the state tournament, anything can happen. It's the same thing with region tournament. We're going to go in with a positive attitude and see if we can do some damage."
The furthest Highlands has ever been in the state semifinals in 1965. The Bluebirds beat Madison Central, 8-2 in the quarterfinals that year before losing 4-3 to Louisville Fern Creek.
9th Region Baseball Title Game:
Teams: R H E
Ryle (21-17) 000 000 0 -- 7 10 1
Highlands (32-6) 002 500 X -- 0 4 4
Highlands Leading Hitters:
Brady Murray, 2-for-4, two runs scored.
Jake Whitford, 2-for-3, Double, two RBI.
Grayson Heck, 2-for-3, one run scored.
IP K BB H R ER
Ethan Doty (W) 5 2/3 7 2 4 0 0
Ricky Raisor 1/3 0 0 0 0 0
Mitch Jones 1 2 0 0 0 0