|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior pitcher Brady Gosney delivers in a recent game. Highlands plays four games in Madisonville this week.|
But that will change this week when the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team (3-3 overall) travels to western Kentucky to play four games this Spring Break. The Bluebirds will take on four teams from the 2nd Region in the University Heights Blazers (2-8) from Hopkinsville and the 8th District, the Livingston Central Cardinals (3-3) of District 5, the Webster County Trojans of District 6 and the host Madisonville-North Hopkins Maroons (4-8) of District 7.
"So many times, our kids are in Fort Thomas and they don't get out and see other places," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach.
"I can be included in that. We're really passionate about baseball, but we've got to broaden our horizons a bit. It's a good opportunity to get to the western part of the state, which we haven't really done. I don't think we've gone beyond Louisville because in years past, it hasn't worked out. Guys think it's normal to drive 8-12 minutes to play eight to 12 teams in your area and don't see it doesn't operate that way throughout the entire state. We're looking forward to it."
Of the four, only Madisonville-North Hopkins made the 2nd Region Tournament last year after finishing second in District 7 to Caldwell County. The Maroons lost 3-2 in the region quarterfinals to Christian County. Hopkinsville won the region before losing 6-4 to North Bullitt, whom Highlands beat in the state quarterfinals on its way to a state runner-up finish.
"(It's about) getting experience playing teams from different parts of Kentucky," said Mark Walkenhorst, Highlands senior first baseman. "Every team has a different style. When we played PRP (Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park) earlier in the season, it was a different feel."
The team leaves Monday morning and faces University Heights at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on the same day. Highlands faced Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park at 6 p.m. on Friday, March 25 before turning around and facing Cincinnati Moeller at 11 a.m. the next day and Strongsville (Ohio) five hours later. Those three games marked the three Highlands losses.
"We're always trying to prepare our guys," Baioni said. "We want everything we do to be hard so that when it comes time for the district tournament, district seed games, things come easy to them. We drive an hour and a half to Lexington for the state tournament. So if you can do it in four hours, an hour and a half is going to seem easy."
Walkenhorst played on the 2013 Highlands Class 4A state runner-up football team that traveled to Paducah Tilghman on a Saturday day trip. Highlands put away the Blue Tornado late in a 42-25 victory. The Bluebirds had to overcome the breakdown of one of the three busses.
But that was not the first time the Highlands football team ventured to the western part of Kentucky. The Bluebirds won at Hopkinsville, 48-21 on Oct. 4, 2008.
Highlands does have seven seniors on the squad. But only right fielder Conner Kreeger and pitcher Ricky Raisor started on the state runner-up team last year that had 12 seniors. With eight juniors, five sophomores and a freshman on the roster, this trip will help enhance the team chemistry.
"It's a different group of guys," Baioni said. "While they see each other at school, they don't have a ton of interaction because they're in school. Some of the younger guys may not hang out with the older guys. It gives more time to get to know each other and doing it the right way with the team focused on baseball."
Highlands had four games get cancelled last week. But the Bluebirds did take care of Covington Holy Cross and Bishop Brossart to move back to .500. Senior third baseman Trent Casebolt said a key hitting ingredient has improved.
"Our approach at the plate struggled early on," Casebolt said. "But Coach Baioni is talking to us before each game. He's getting us ready for the end of the season. If a pitcher comes out with a first-pitch curve ball, he said to take it. But we're up there looking to crush the fastball."
Highlands is batting .257 (38-of-148) as a team with five doubles and no triples or home runs. Junior outfielder Bradley Greene and junior infielder/catcher Kyle Rust lead Highlands batting .417 (5-for-12) and .412 (7-of-17) respectively. Raisor, Casebolt, Ethan Doty, Kreeger and Drew Rom have one double each for Highlands.
The Bluebirds have nine stolen bases on the season. Senior Austin Beal leads the way with five and Rust has two.
The Highlands staff has a 1.97 earned-run average with one shutout. Raisor is 2-1 to lead the way with 11 strikeouts and sophomore Drew Rom has the team's lone save. The Bluebirds have 43 strikeouts to 14 walks on the season for nearly a three-to-one ratio. Rom has 12 strikeouts on the season to lead the way and Doty has 10.
The Bluebirds conclude the tough week at Cincinnati St. Xavier on Friday and against Cincinnati McNicholas on Saturday in the Reds Futures Showcase. The Friday game starts at 5 p.m.