The Highlands Bluebirds baseball team set numerous records on their way to that first-ever state championship game appearance. The only unfortunate thing is Highlands (35-7 overall last year) ran into the red-hot hitting West Jessamine Colts in the title game. West Jessamine scored six times in the top of the first inning on its way to a 10-3 victory in the title game.
Highlands graduated 12 seniors from that team. The Bluebirds made it to the state tournament by winning their first 9th Region crown since 1997 and their fourth straight 36th District championship. The furthest Highlands had ever gone before last year was the state semifinals in 1965. The good news for the Bluebirds is more talented players are ready to step in.
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"We haven't been in that position in the past," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "We've had guys that have started for three or four years. These guys are eager to show they can play too. They had a talented group in front of them. We had a great offseason. We had a lot of guys playing other sports, which is great. Everyone else was in the weight room working hard. We're blessed to have fantastic facilities and we used them every bit as we could."
All 12 seniors contributed to the run. Brady Murray and Alex Veneman played in left and center field respectively. Veneman walked on to the football program at Western Kentucky University. In addition, the entire infield graduated in third baseman Todd Ramey, shortstop Jake Whitford, second baseman Grayson Heck, first baseman D.J. Mills and catcher Luke Hennigan. Kenny Ball also graduated after serving as a designated hitter. Ramey took his talents to Georgetown College.
The other four seniors pitched in Mitch Jones, Joseph Martin, Jacob Noe and Lou Bunning. Jones is pitching at Kentucky Wesleyan University in Owensboro and Bunning redshirted this past season for the Lindsey Wilson football team.
Highlands batted .375 as a team last year. The Bluebirds scored 344 runs and had 440 hits. Highlands did not get shut out all season.
The lone returning starter in the field is senior right fielder Conner Kreeger. He batted second last year. Kreeger batted .340 (33-for-97) with 40 runs scored, five doubles, a triple, 18 runs batted in and 12 walks.
The Bluebirds also return two pitchers with tremendous experience on the mound. They are senior Ricky Raisor and junior Ethan Doty. The two helped Highlands record 13 shutouts last year including a state-record five in a row. Raisor went 9-1 with two saves, 65 strikeouts and a 1.27 earned-run average in 55 innings pitched. Doty went 3-0 with a save, 49 strikeouts and a 1.47 ERA in 38 innings pitched. Doty will play third base when not on the mound.
"It's a learning curve," Raisor said. "We're trying to give the younger kids advice and show them what we've learned from the seniors that have left. We're trying to get them to where we are now so they can improve as we move on. We're showing the basics of how to keep your head in the game and don't let things get to you."
But despite the graduation losses, Highlands hopes to make another strong run in the postseason. Highlands had lost in the region title game in 2012 and 2014 before winning it last year.
"We hope to redeem ourselves," said Austin Beal, Highlands senior center fielder. "We're all confident in ourselves so hopefully, we'll (get back to Lexington). We're going to give it 110 percent every single time on the field. We'll see how it goes this year."
The Bluebirds learned the value of pitching depth last year. Two more juniors and two sophomores could give them depth there. The two juniors are Kyle Finfrock and Spencer Dee. Finfrock will play first base and Dee could be in the infield when not pitching. The sophomores are Drew Rom and Hunter Dreves. Rom could play in the outfield and Dreves on the infield when not pitching. Kreeger also hoped to pitch, but arm issues have slowed that development.
"We have a couple sophomores who are learning how to pitch at the varsity level," Baioni said. "Spencer Dee has worked really hard in the offseason. We think he's going to do a great job for us as well."
Highlands has four other seniors on the team. They are designated hitter Trent Casebolt, second baseman Austin Mayhew and first basemen Hunter Henschen and Mark Walkenhorst.
The Bluebirds also have eight juniors on the roster. After Doty, Dee and Finfrock, Bradley Greene is battling for an outfield spot and Kyle Rust is looking to take over the catching duties. Tyler Schwalbach is looking to play third base and Brady Gosney hopes to play shortstop.Trey Bowden could play in the infield or the outfield. Highlands also has a freshman battling for playing time at catcher in Bryce Ziegler.
Highlands has been going over game situations in recent practices. They want players to understand what to do if the ball is hit to the right side and a runner is on second for example.
"It's really hard to simulate game situations," Baioni said. "We had a scrimmage the other day. We've had intersquad scrimmages. We've done a lot of situations where we've had guys running bases. But it's really hard until you put them in game situations to understand the speed of the game. We had a great few days leading up to the season. We have a really competitive schedule. If we have any weaknesses, they'll be exposed. We'll fix them before district tournament."
Highlands traveled to Boone County to open the season Monday and won 5-1. Rom and Raisor allowed just three hits combined. Raisor pitched the first four innings to pick up the win. Raisor struck out three and walked three.
The Bluebirds outhit the Rebels, 10-3. Bowden, Rust and Greene all went 2-for-3. Greene had two runs batted in and Bowden scored twice. Kreeger added a double.
The Bluebirds travel to Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park on Friday. Game time is 6 p.m.
HIGHLANDS HIGH SCHOOL (5) AT BOONE COUNTY (1) HIGHLANDS HIGH SCHOO AB R H BI BOONE COUNTY AB R H BI Austin Beal 4 0 0 0 Jake Domasschko 2 1 1 0 Trey Bowden 3 2 2 0 Jason Russell 2 0 0 0 Conner Kreeger 3 1 1 0 Jeff Purnell 3 0 0 0 Mark Walkenhorst 3 0 1 1 Jake Schultz 1 0 1 1 Brady Gosney 2 1 1 1 Player Eickhoff 0 0 0 0 Ethan Doty 2 1 1 0 Kenton Hibbard 3 0 0 0 Kyle Rust 3 0 2 1 Daniel Dahms 2 0 0 0 Hunter Henschen 3 0 0 0 Conner Bruck 3 0 1 0 Trent Casebolt 1 0 0 0 Peter Westhoff 3 0 0 0 Brad Greene 3 0 2 2 Tyler Ivasale 2 0 0 0 Kyle Finfrock 1 0 0 0 Player Sayor 1 0 0 0 TOTALS 28 5 10 5 TOTALS 22 1 3 1 HIGHLANDS HIGH SCHOOL 100 020 2 -- 5 BOONE COUNTY 100 000 0 -- 1 LOB--HIGHLANDS HIGH SCHOOL 11, BOONE COUNTY 5. ERR--Brady Gosney, Jake Domasschko. 2B--Conner Kreeger. HBP--Austin Beal, Conner Kreeger, Brady Gosney (2), Jake Schultz. SACF--Mark Walkenhorst. SB--Austin Beal (2), Brad Greene. HIGHLANDS HIGH SCHOOL IP H R ER BB SO HR Ricky Raisor 4.00 3 1 1 3 3 0 Drew Rom (W) 3.00 0 0 0 1 3 0 BOONE COUNTY Daniel Dahms 3.00 0 1 0 3 1 0 Tyler Ivasale (L) 2.00 5 2 2 0 1 0 Alex Schwartz 1.33 4 2 2 1 0 0 Player Eickhoff 0.67 1 0 0 0 1 0 PB--Kyle Rust. WP--Alex Schwartz. SO--Brad Greene, Hunter Henschen (2), Peter Westhoff, Daniel Dahms, Kenton Hibbard, Jake Domasschko, Jason Russell, Tyler Ivasale. BB--Kyle Rust, Trey Bowden, Ethan Doty (2), Jake Schultz, Daniel Dahms, Jake Domasschko, Jason Russell.