Thursday, June 2, 2016

Bluebirds Bring Home Consecutive 9th Region Crown

Ladybirds Delayed One Day
PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior Bradley Greene makes a catch in the region championship game. Greene had five putouts in center field Thursday.
PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. The Highlands Bluebirds baseball team won its second straight 9th Region championship Thursday with a 7-1 victory over the Beechwood Tigers.
The Thursday evening heavy rains did their best to postpone the region championship hopes of the Blue and White baseball and softball teams for at least a day.

The Ladybirds softball team (23-10 overall) saw its 9th Region championship game against Ryle (25-8) postponed until Friday at 6 p.m. at Vets Field in Newport.

But the rain did not stick around long enough to do the same to the 9th Region baseball championship on the turf of the University of Cincinnati Health Ball Park. After the rains cleared and a rainbow appeared delaying the start time by half an hour, the Bluebirds (23-17) took care of the Beechwood Tigers (32-8), 7-1 for their second straight region championship.

After finishing state runner-up last year, Highlands returns to the state tournament in Lexington opening up against the 15th Region champion Johnson Central Golden Eagles (32-9) on Thursday, June 9 at 11 a.m. The tournament takes place over two weekends this year as opposed to the one-week format last season.

Last year's senior-laden state runner-up Bluebirds finished 35-7 and rolled to the state tournament beating its five district and region tournament opponents by a combined 37-3 count. This year's squad dominated in the same fashion scoring the same amount of runs but allowed two fewer runs as Beechwood became the only district or region tournament to score on the Bluebirds. Highlands avenged a 12-1 five-inning run-ruling to Beechwood on May 4.

"They turned the switch on and it wasn't in games. It was in practice," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "They were much more crisp and really figured it out. I'm really proud of all the guys. It's nice to know that you're waiting on a class to be able to compete in the region. We had a class last year that was good and talented, but we had kids behind them that were talented as well. They were just waiting their turn. We hadn't had that maybe in Highlands baseball ever because they've been rushed up so much. It's Fort Thomas. It's Highlands and that's what they love."

That run came in the third inning when Kyle Rowe singled in Ethan Stringer. But Bluebird catcher Kyle Rust fired a strike to second baseman Austin Mayhew to tag out Rowe going to second to end the inning. Highlands led 5-1 at that point.

Junior Ethan Doty (5-5) took the mound and picked up the win. He struck out six, walked three and allowed just two hits. He started and won the 7-0 victory over Ryle in the 9th Region championship game last year.

"The pitching did not surprise me," Baioni said. "We've had a group of guys on the mound who could get it done all year long. Really, the defense didn't surprise me. I'm really proud of how well the guys played defensively. Guys stayed fundamentally sound and some of the hesitation they had early in the year, they no longer have. They were more aggressive. They were coachable and did a great job."

Doty pitched into the sixth inning before senior Ricky Raisor came in to finish it. With one out and runners on first and second, Raisor struck out Trevor Soward and pinch-hitter Dylan Doverspike. Rowe and leadoff hitter Ethan Stringer had the two lone Beechwood hits. Highlands held Beechwood senior first baseman and University of Kentucky commit Brayden Combs hitless in three plate appearances. Raisor, Combs and Drew Rom - the winning pitcher in the region semifinals against St. Henry - made the region all-tournament team.

"It was middle in hard, low and out soft on (Stringer, Combs, Slusher, Rowe)," Doty said. "I was trying to get them to ground out or pop out to center. I was struggling in the third, couldn't find command. But it came back and it was all good. I don't know what it is, but we always come alive in tournament time."

The Highlands outfield had to make a lot of plays on fly balls. Junior Bradley Greene made five putouts in center field with Rom making two in right and Bowden one in left.

The Bluebirds had seven hits, just one error and took advantage of three Tiger errors. Trey Bowden and tournament most valuable player Austin Mayhew had two hits each. Mayhew had three runs batted in bringing his total to 12 on the season. Mayhew, Rom and Conner Kreeger had doubles.

Highlands hit the scoreboard first with an unearned run in the second inning. Rom doubled before Beechwood starting pitcher Kyle Fieger struck out Sam Hennigan. But when the ball hit the dirt, Beechwood catcher Brayden Burch had to throw to first. Rom bolted for third when Burch threw to Combs. Combs then throw the ball high over Bankemper's head allowing Rom to score.

Highlands blew it open with four runs in the third inning. Bowden walked and moved to second when Kyle Rust singled. The two moved to second and third respectively on a baulk before Kreeger hit a double to right-center allowing Bowden to score and Rust to move to third. Rust then came home on a wild pitch after Mark Walkenhorst walked to load the bases. Mayhew then doubled to the same spot scoring Kreeger and Walkenhorst. Bankemper then came in to end the threat.

"Coming into the tournament, I was hitting (the ball) pretty well, but I had a whole new mindset for this tournament," Mayhew said. "I had so much more confidence than I've had all year. I just knew we were going to get it done the entire time. It was a good pitch so I hit it."

The score stayed 5-1 in favor of Highlands until the seventh inning. Pinch-hitter Bryce Ziegler reached on a Beechwood error and Greene re-entered the game to run. Bowden landed a perfect bunt single to move Greene to second and Rust bunted them both over. After Kreeger walked to load the bases, Walkenhorst hit a pop fly by the left-field line that Bankemper hustled over to catch. That let Greene score to make it 6-1 Bluebirds. Mayhew then singled in Bowden to make the final score.

"All I do is read the ball in the air," Greene said. "The coaches do a good job of lining us up in the outfield depending on who the hitters are. As soon as it is in the air, I just go get it. I wasn't worried worried about the wall (395 feet from the plate to center field). It's such a huge field that you can run around all day."

The Rust and Baioni families hope to see another region championship in the same season Friday. Baioni's daughter Taylor is a junior outfielder for the Ladybirds and Rust's sister Abby has emerged this season.

"I actually sent (Taylor) a text earlier today prior to knowing what the weather was going to do," Coach Baioni said. "I try not to look at the weather because it just frustrates me. When I looked at the weather, I was hoping we could hit a bit and still get our game in. But I sent her a text and told her, 'I want twins. I want twin trophies of baseball and softball from the same year sitting next to each other and she was all in so hopefully, they go out and take care of business (Friday). I'm going to be there cheering my tail off and having fun with all those girls."

The last time the same school won both the 9th Region crowns for baseball and softball came in 2007 when Ryle did it. The Lady Raiders finished state runner-up that year after winning the state championship the previous season.

Baseball Box Score:
                                                                 R  H  E
Highlands (23-17)                  014 000 2  7   7   1
Beechwood (32-8)                  001 000 0  1   2   3

Highlands Pitching Line:
Ethan Doty (W, 5-5) - 6.1 innings pitched, two hits, six strikeouts, three walks.
Ricky Raisor - .2 innings pitched, no hits, two strikeouts, no walks.

Highlands leading hitters:
Austin Mayhew, 2-for-4, double, three runs batted in.
Trey Bowden, 2-for-3, two runs scored, walk.
Conner Kreeger, double, run batted in, walk, run scored.
Drew Rom, double, run scored.

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
Friday, June 3:
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 7, Beehwood 1

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