Thursday, June 9, 2016

Back to Lexington

Bluebirds open tournament against Golden Eagles

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Members of the Highlands baseball team rush the field after winning the 9th Region championship Thursday. Highlands takes on Johnson Central at 11 a.m. Thursday to open the state tournament.
The Blue and White have played confident and loose throughout the postseason.

That is why the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team (23-17) has outscored the competition by a combined 37-1 count on the way to consecutive 9th Region titles. The Bluebirds know that has to continue if they want to make another deep run in the state tournament. They finished a program-best state runner-up last year.

Four other teams at least repeated as region champs and they happen to be on the same side as Highlands in the bracket. They are 12th Region champion and defending state champion West Jessamine (31-8), 1st Region champion McCracken County (35-5), 5th Region champion Elizabethtown (28-12) and top-ranked 16th Region champion Greenup County.

The format changed this year. It will take place over two weekends instead of an entire week. The semifinals and championship game will be June 17 and 18.

"Last year, a lot of these guys were on the roster," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "They know we won (region) on Thursday then played on Monday. So you got the big game Thursday. We gave them Friday off then practiced Saturday and Sunday then Monday. Now, there's more down time. We're as prepared as we're going to be. It's just maintenance thing. They're ready to play."

But before worrying about any of them, Highlands has to beat the 15th Region champion Johnson Central Golden Eagles (32-9) at 11 a.m. at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington. The Golden Eagles run-ruled their five region opponents by a combined 40-4 in five innings.

The Golden Eagles and Bluebirds share a common opponent in the Ryle Raiders. Ryle beat Johnson Central, 3-2 in eight innings on May 14 in the Fayette County Invitational Tournament and Highlands, 6-1 on May 11 in Fort Thomas.

While the Bluebirds did not play any of the other 15 region winners during the regular season, Johnson Central faced five going 3-2. The Golden Eagles beat West Jessamine, North Laurel and Campbell County. The other loss came to Scott County.

Johnson Central has allowed just 69 earned runs this season and the pitching staff owns a 1.75 earned-run average to go with 102 runs, 208 hits, 321 strikeouts and 124 walks. The Golden Eagles are led by senior Braxton Kelly (5-2, 1.72, 61 IP, 17 runs, 15 earned, 47 hits, 73 strikeouts, 19 walks) sophomores Tate Meade (6-0, 1.32 ERA, 53 IP, 12 runs, 10 earned, 27 hits, 95 strikeouts, 29 walks) and Josh Hitchcock (8-0, 1.54 ERA, 50 IP, 11 runs, 11 earned, 30 hits, 62 strikeouts, 29 walks).

"I'm not sure about the velocity with how hard guys throw," Baioni said. "But it's evident with the low ERA they keep the ball down, change speeds and they play really good defense behind (the pitchers) so they're really limiting runs scored. We're going to have to do our best to scratch as many runs as we can then do a good job limiting the runs they score."

Highlands may need to equal that staff with its own experienced staff that owns a 3.22 ERA with 147 runs including 111 earned, 237 hits, 309 strikeouts and 108 walks. Senior Ricky Raisor (6-3, 2.91 ERA, 27 runs, 22 earned, 50 hits, 68 strikeouts, 21 walks) has been the ace with junior Ethan Doty and sophomore southpaw Drew Rom neck-and-neck for second.

Doty held off a key North Bullitt rally in the state quarterfinals last year. Doty is 5-5 with a 2.67 ERA with 33 runs including 24 earned, 53 hits, 101 strikeouts and 26 walks). Rom threw a complete game in the region semifinals against St. Henry. He is 3-4 on the season with a 2.75 ERA to go with 39 runs including 24 earned, 54 hits, 69 strikeouts and 25 walks.

Johnson Central is batting .300 (321-of-1,069) as a team with 228 runs batted in, 279 runs scored, 48 doubles, 13 triples, five home runs, 212 strikeouts, 166 walks and 112 stolen bases. Junior first baseman Geordan Blanton leads the Golden Eagles with an astounding .496 batting average (63-of-127) to go with 50 runs batted in, 56 runs scored, seven doubles, seven triples, 36 stolen bases and five home runs.

"The big thing is limiting the damage (Blanton) can do," Baioni said. "Part of that is keeping guys in front of him off base. He's going to do what he does. If we keep guys off base in front of him and he ends up on first base, we almost consider that a win at this point."

The Eagles have speed at the top of the line-up with eighth grade catcher Cody Rice and sophomore shortstop Austin Davis. Rice is batting .326 (42-of-129) with 48 runs, 17 RBI, four doubles, a triple, 24 walks and 25 stolen bases. Davis is hitting .365 (42-of-115) with 43 runs scored, 19 RBI, six doubles, two triples, 17 walks and 19 stolen bases.

The Bluebirds are hitting .308 (312-of-1,012) as a team with 216 runs, 189 RBI, 44 doubles, seven triples, five home runs, 244 strikeouts, 150 walks and 52 stolen bases. Senior first baseman Mark Walkenhorst leads Highlands offensively hitting .393 (42-of-107) with 29 RBI, 27 runs scored, two doubles, 11 walks and a stolen base.

Senior Conner Kreeger is the lone returning starter in the field from last year's state runner-up squad. Some players like Kyle Rust, Bradley Greene and Austin Mayhew pinch ran in the tournament last year.

"I basically tell them they need to kind of calm their nerves, focus on enjoying the moment and be excited," Kreeger said. "I know that they've prepared themselves. Now it's time to put it all together."

Highlands played on a larger outfield at the University of Cincinnati Health Field for the region tournament. The Bluebirds practiced at Thomas More College on Wednesday.

The last state championship for the 9th Region came in 2002. Covington Catholic brought it home that year.

Tournament Notes:

Rust has family connections with both the Highlands baseball and softball teams that won the 9th Region in the same season for the first time in school history. Rust's father Jeff is an assistant coach and his eighth-grade sister Abby plays for the softball team.

"It's a great feeling," Kyle Rust said. "As an older brother knowing that I won the region championship as a junior then seeing my sister win the region championship with the varsity softball team as an eight grader and getting in and getting some playing time, it's a great feeling. My Dad has helped me and my sister and I've helped in the progression of my sister's game. We both came out on top and are doing the best we can."

No team has repeated as state champions since the mid-90s. Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park won it three straight seasons between 1994 and 1996.

2016 KHSAA State Baseball Tournament
At Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington:
First Round:
Thursday, June 9:
(15) Johnson Central (32-9) vs. (9) Highlands (23-17), 11 a.m.
(1) McCracken County (35-5) vs. (5) Elizabethtown (28-12), 1:30 p.m.
(16) Greenup County (39-1) vs. (7) Louisville St. Xavier (25-12), 6 p.m.
(12) West Jessamine (31-8) vs. (4) Bowling Green (31-9), 8:30 p.m.
Friday, June 10:
(14) Hazard (29-11) vs. (13) North Laurel (29-10), 11 a.m.
(8) Oldham County (30-7) vs. (6) Bullitt East (26-10), 1:30 p.m.
(11) Scott County (27-10) vs. (2) Caldwell County (31-6), 6 p.m.
(10) Campbell County (26-10) vs. (3) Ohio County (23-14), 8:30 p.m.
() in front denotes region won.

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