Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Highlands baseball, softball teams take care of business in 9th semifinals

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Members of the Highlands softball team pose after the 9-4 9th Region semifinal win over Boone County. The Ladybirds and the Bluebird baseball team play for region championships Thursday.
FLORENCE - It has become a staple in recent years.

The 36th District champion Highlands Bluebirds baseball and Ladybird softball teams found themselves again playing for 9th Region championships with semifinal victories Tuesday. The Ladybirds (23-10 overall) took down Boone County (13-17), 9-4 at Veterans Memorial Park in Newport and a few hours later, the Bluebirds (22-17) blanked the 34th District champion 17-12 St. Henry Crusaders, 4-0 at University of Cincinnati Health Stadium.

Both teams have made the region championship in the same season three straight years. The Bluebirds are making their fourth appearance in the region championship in the past five seasons.

The Bluebirds won the region last year on their way to a state runner-up finish and the Ladybirds won their first-ever region crown in 2014. The last time baseball and softball teams won the region in the same season came in 2007 when Ryle did it.

Both teams will play for the crowns Thursday. The Ladybirds face Ryle (25-8) at 6 p.m. and the Bluebirds take on Beechwood (32-7) at 7 p.m. at the same locations.

The Ladybirds played better offensively after Head Coach Rob Coffey challenged them following the 9-0 region quarterfinal win over Covington Holy Cross. They recorded six extra-base hits.

"We preached focus, effort and fight," said Rob Coffey, Highlands Head Coach. "(On Monday), they didn't bring any of them in our opinion as coaches. We told them if they had a reenactment of the (Monday), they may be turning in the equipment. We have a bunch of stuff to distract us, but (Monday) they were lucky enough to scoot by. They definitely came with focus and effort (Tuesday)."

Senior Shelby Graybill led the way going 2-for-3 with a home run, double, three runs batted in and two runs scored. Haley Coffey and Brennah Dutcher also had two hits each. Haley Coffey scored twice with Dutcher, Morgan Coffey, Rachel Gabbard and Brooke Dill recording doubles.

"I just wanted to execute," Dill said. "I had a job to do. I had to score those runs and I did that. When we get down two strikes, we try to tighten up. We call those our short swings. We try to get the bat on the ball, get the ball in play and score some runs."

Highlands pitcher Bailey Spencer scattered 11 hits including three doubles. She struck out two in another complete game. Star Smith led the Lady Rebels going 3-for-4 with a double and run scored with Jayda Collins going 2-for-4 with an RBI and run scored.

Boone took a 2-0 lead in the first inning on a two-run double. But Dill tied the game in the bottom of the second with a two-run double.

Highlands took the lead for good with three runs in the third inning. Haley Coffey singled and took second on a wild pitch before younger sister Morgan Coffey singled her home. Graybill then stepped to the plate and drilled her eighth home run to straightaway center 50 feet beyond the 200-foot mark to give Highlands a 5-2 advantage.

"I was worried about an early lead because we hadn't trailed a Northern Kentucky team all year," Coach Coffey said. "I had a feeling we would react well. I told them at the beginning of the game you can't play with fear. If you play with fear, you'll get beat. I honestly think the two runs turned us the other way. Our defensive effort is always there. Haley (Coffey) made some unbelievable plays at shortstop to get us out of innings. They are so fundamentally sound that even when (teams) hit, it's still hard to score against us."

The Ladybirds extended the margin to 7-2 in the fourth inning. Dill walked before Haley Coffey sacrifice bunted her to third. Dill came home on a throwing error. Graybill then walked, took second on a fielder's choice before scoring on a Gabbard single.

Boone scored in the top of the sixth before Highlands scored two more in the sixth. Haley Coffey singled and took second on a wild pitch before Graybill doubled her in. Ella Greiwe ran for Garybill and took first on a Dutcher single before Gabbard hit a sacrifice fly to center to score her.

Boone County scored once in the seventh inning before Spencer shut the door. The two teams did not play each other in the regular season. Highlands also beat the Lady Rebels in the 9th semifinals two years ago.

In the baseball game, Highlands recorded its fourth postseason shutout in as many games as sophomore Drew Rom (3-4) limited the Crusaders to four base runners on two hits, a walk and a Highlands error. Highlands also beat St. Henry, 9-5 on April 18 in Fort Thomas.

"It feels great to prove people wrong," Rom said. "It was a case of setting down because the first two innings, (I felt) the adrenaline (rush) of this game."

Highlands erased two of those base runners. Catcher Kyle Rust threw out Michael Ridilla trying to steal second to lead off the first and Rom picked off a St. Henry pinch-runner on a rundown in the fifth inning.

"(The Highlands pitchers) did a great job," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "They pounded the strike zone and made (the Crusaders) put the ball in play. We played good defense. I was proud of what Drew did and I was proud of the guys behind him."

Both teams committed one error. Highlands has not had issues adjusting to the turf field after playing on grass most of the regular season.

"A couple days before the tournament, we went to our soccer field (at Tower Park), which is a turf field and fielded ground balls to get used to the turf," said Sam Hennigan, Highlands third baseman. "Turf is a lot faster and the bounces are different than dirt and grass."

The Bluebirds pounded out six hits against St. Henry pitchers Cole Oldfield and Nick Weber. Mark Walkenhorst led Highlands going 2-for-3 with a run batted in and Austin Mayhew had two runs batted in.

Highlands struck first with two unearned runs in the first inning. Trey Bowden singled and moved to second when Rust reached on a Crusader error. After Conner Kreeger forced Bowden out on a force play at third, Walkenhorst singled to left to score Rust and Mayhew followed that with a single to left to score Kreeger.

The Bluebirds extended the margin to 3-0 in the third when Rust scored again. He singled before moving to second on a Walkenhorst single. The two executed a double-steal before Mayhew landed a squeeze bunt to score Rust.

"There were times offensively and defensively throughout the year where we made outs where we shoudn't have," Baioni said. "We did a good job when they gave us an out, we took it. When we needed to move runners offensively, we did it. Then we got a big hit on top of it."

Highlands added the final run in the fifth. Bowden walked and Rust bunted him to second. Kreeger then singled Bowden home. The top five batters went 6-for-10 for the Bluebirds.

Softball Box Score:
Boone County (13-17)   200  001  1  -  4  11  2
Highlands (22-10)          023  202  X -  9   9  0

Highlands pitching line:
Bailey Spencer, seven IP, two strikeouts, 11 hit, no walks, four earned runs.

Highlands leading hitters:
Shelby Graybill, 2-for-3, home run, double, three runs batted in, two runs.
Haley Coffey, 2-for-2, two runs scored.
Brennah Dutcher, 2-for-4, double.

Baseball Box Score:
                                                                R  H  E
St. Henry (17-12)                  000 000 0  0   2   1
Highlands (22-17)                 201 010 x  4   6   1

Highlands Pitching Line:
Drew Rom (3-4) - Complete game, two hits, six strikeouts, one walk.

Highlands leading hitters:
Mark Walkenhorst, 2-for-3, run batted in.

9th Region Softball Tournament Schedule:
Monday, May 30:
Quarterfinals at Vets Field, Newport:
Boone County 3, Dixie Heights 0
Highlands 9, Covington Holy Cross 0
Ryle 3, Newport Central Catholic 0
Notre Dame 6, St. Henry 3
Tuesday, May 31:
Semifinals at Vets Field, Newport:
Highlands 9, Boone County 4
Ryle 5, Notre Dame 2
Thursday, June 2:
Championship at Vets Field, Newport:
Highlands (23-10) vs Ryle (25-8), 6 p.m.

9th Region Softball Tournament Schedule:
Monday, May 30:
Quarterfinals at UCH Ball Park in Florence:
Conner 8, Dixie Heights 2
Beechwood 7, Newport Central Catholic 1
St. Henry 4, Ryle 3
Highlands 7, Covington Catholic 0
Tuesday, May 31:
Semifinals at UCH Ball Park in Florence:
Beechwood 6, Conner 5
Highlands 4, St. Henry 0
Thursday, June 2:
Championship at UCH Ball Park in Florence:
Highlands (22-17) vs. Beehwood (32-7), 7 p.m.

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