The schedule worked out in favor of the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team (34-6 overall) after the 3-1 win over the North Bullitt Eagles in the Rawlings/Kentucky High School Assocation State Baseball Tournament Quarterfinals on Wednesday. Highlands faces the 16th Region Champion Greenup County Musketeers (33-10) on Friday at 6 p.m. back at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington.
It will mark just the second semifinal appearance in school history. Highlands lost 4-3 to Louisville Fern Creek in its other semifinal appearance 50 years ago in 1965. The Bluebirds improved to 3-3 all-time in in the state tournament with the two wins to reach this point. Highlands beat top-ranked McCracken County, 5-2 Tuesday.
"I think they were a little tight (against North Bullitt). It was difficult for us going back-to-back (days)," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach of the off day. "We'll be able to go over some things and refocus on Friday."
Highlands has played like a team on a mission all season. The Bluebirds accomplished the huge goal of breaking through and winning the 9th Region crown. But after two wins in the tournament, 20th-ranked Highlands finds itself the only ranked team left in the final Kentucky Association of Baseball Coaches Poll left in the semifinals.
"We just have to get motivated to not stop here," said Conner Kreeger, Highlands junior right fielder. "We want to get something for these seniors. We want them to have great endings to their baseball careers. It's about going out there and having fun."
As a result, the Bluebirds find themselves in reversed roles after entering the tournament as the underdogs against McCracken County having outscored their seven postseason opponents, 45-6. They've withstood opposing teams' best shots the entire tournament. That includes beating Boone County, 4-2 in the 9th Region semifinals with two runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to break a 2-2 deadlock.
"We ain't worried about 45-6," said Greg Logan, veteran Greenup County Head Coach. "The kids don't even know that. I guarantee you Friday they will strap it on and we'll give it our best shot."
Highlands has had great leadership from its 12 seniors all season. Six of those seniors helped the Highlands football team to its 23rd state championship in December in Alex Veneman, Lou Bunning, D.J. Mills, Brady Murray, Jacob Noe and Grayson Heck.
"Having the potential chance to win two state titles in the same (academic) year is something pretty special," Bunning said. "Going to play college football (at Lindsey Wilson College), this is about all I have left with baseball. Every day, you wake up knowing this might be the last day you put on a baseball uniform so you get motivated to come out and play as hard as you can every day with these guys. They're my brothers out there."
The day off will especially help Highlands with its vaunted pitching staff and defense. Only junior Ricky Raisor will not be available Friday when the Bluebirds try to advance to the state championship game for the first time in school history.
Seniors Mitch Jones, Joseph Martin or sophomore Ethan Doty could start Friday. Senior relief pitchers Jacob Noe and Lou Bunning have not been called on yet. But they are ready if their name is called on. The pitchers have done a good job hitting locations, especially with runners in scoring position. McCracken County left seven on base and North Bullitt left eight on.
"It's always important every time you go out," Baioni said. "You want to stay down in the zone and change speed well. Our guys have done that all year. We need that out of them again Friday. That's a scrappy team there. They (Musketeers) run well. They grinded out that win there (8-6 over Collins in the quarterfinals)."
Greenup County did not enter the tournament with as good of hitting stats as McCracken County and North Bullitt. But the Musketeers have taken advantage of their opportunities. Greenup County had seven hits in the win over Collins amd took advantage of two Titan errors. Catcher Brody Shoupe went 2-for-3 with a triple and run scored and designated hitter Christian Wireman went 2-for-4 with three runs batted in. First baseman Tristan Downing added a triple and two RBI.
The Musketeers entered the tournament batting .285 (298-for-1,046) with just two home runs on the season, 43 doubles and 11 triples. Shorstop Gabe Hughes led Greenup County batting .393 (46-for-117) with 10 doubles, two triples, 32 RBI and 41 runs scored. Five spots in the line-up Wednesday hit below .300 entering the tournament.
Collins did hit the ball well against the four Musketeer pitchers and took advantage of three Musketeer errors. The Titans scored three times in the bottom of the first to tie the game at 3-3 and actually led 5-3 entering the fifth inning before Greenup County scored three runs to take a 6-5 lead.
Musketeer ace Jaxon Keeton threw almost three innings against Collins. He was 7-1 entering the tournament with a .91 earned-run average, 34 strikeouts, 11 runs with seven of them earned, 23 walks and 42 hits in 54 innings pitched.
Keeton started in Greenup County's 5-2 win over Lawrence County to open the tournament. Zach Hayden could start after not pitching Wednesday. He entered the tournament 6-0 with a 2.71 ERA, 16 runs including 12 earned, 34 hits, 21 strikeouts and 12 walks in 31 innings.
"We have to be disciplined hitters," Baioni said. "We have to wait and let the ball travel and get to the plate. We've been preaching this all year. Even if a guy isn't throwing in the mid-80s, we still need to be disciplined enough to hit the outside pitch the other way. Velocity doesn't dictate where we hit the ball. The location does. If our guys stick to that game plan, we'll be okay."
"That was huge because we were getting into the heart of the (Collins) order," Logan said. "Quite frankly, they can hit the baseball. They outhit us, but they never had any more bigger hits than what we did. We were tapped out, but we've been doing this all year. Sometimes, you're in the right place at the right time."
Highlands has done a good job bunting and coming through with clutch hits throughout the postseason. Mills had a two-run single to put Highlands ahead for good at 2-1 early in the win over North Bullitt.
Highlands is not the only team from Northern Kentucky left in the tournament. The 10th Region champion Scott Eagles face the 12th Region champion West Jessamine Colts in the second semifinal game.
2015 State Baseball Tournament
at Whitaker Bank Ballpark
First Round Games:
North Bullitt 6, Hopkinsville 4
Greenup County 5, Lawrence County 2
Collins 5, Madison Central 4
Highlands 5, McCracken County 2
South Warren 5, South Laurel 3
Elizabethtown 8, Owensboro Apollo 1
West Jessamine 11, Louisville Ballard 6
Scott 4, Knott County Central 1
Highlands 3, North Bullitt 1
Greenup County 8, Collins 6
Scott 7, South Warren 0
West Jessamine 12, Elizabethtown 6
Highlands (34-6) vs. Greenup County (33-10), 6 p.m.
Scott (23-11) vs. West Jessamine (34-7), 8:30 p.m.
Saturday Title Game:
Friday winners, 7 p.m.