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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Highlands baseball, softball hope to make history

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands senior Austin Mayhew makes a play in the win over Covington Catholic on Monday. Mayhew is one of  six seniors on the team that has made the 9th Region championship game four times in the past five years.
PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands eighth grader Abby Rust reaches third in a game against Boone County on Tuesday. The Ladybirds are making their third straight appearance in the 9th Region championship game Thursday.
Both teams hope the third time is a charm in making school history.

The Highlands Bluebirds baseball team (22-17 overall) and the Ladybirds softball team (23-10) hope to bring 9th Region crowns back to Fort Thomas on Thursday. The Ladybirds battle the Ryle Lady Raiders (25-8) at 6 p.m. at Vets Field in Newport and the Bluebirds take on the Beechwood Tigers (32-7) at 7 p.m. at University of Cincinnati Health Ball Park in Florence.

Last year, the Bluebirds won their first region crown since 1997 with a 7-0 win over Ryle on their way to a state runner-up finish. The Ladybirds hoped to repeat as region champs but Notre Dame rallied for a 5-4 win in the championship game. Two years ago, the Ladybirds rallied past Notre Dame for an 8-7 victory and the first region crown in program history. But Conner shut out the Bluebirds, 3-0 in the baseball region championship game.

The last time a school won both region championships in the same season came in 2007 when Ryle captured both. The defending state champion Lady Raiders finished state runner-up that season.

The Ladybirds moved to 17-0 against region opponents with the 9-0 and 9-4 victories over Covington Holy Cross and Boone County respectively. That includes two wins over Ryle. Highlands beat the Lady Raiders, 7-1 to finish third in the Uncle Pete Knoll Tournament in Covington on April 2 and 8-3 on May 14 at Winkler Field.

"I want to think we're the favorite. However, the target is on our back," said Rob Coffey, Highlands Head Coach. "We've always been the hunters. Now we're the hunted. If we bring the effort and focus we did (against Boone County) and we hit like we did, our defense keeps us in the game. I like our chances."

Senior Bailey Spencer has dazzled on the mound all season. She threw a one-hitter against Holy Cross and Highlands committed no errors behind her in both region victories.

Highlands looked well offensively against Holy Cross and hopes to carry it over against Ryle. Junior Kennady Carson generally pitches for the Lady Raiders. The Ladybirds had five doubles and senior Shelby Graybill hit a two-run blast for her eighth home run this season.

"We just have to focus on having our intensity up and bringing focus into the game," Graybill said. "Outside of the game, we have to stay focused on the game before us the entire day with strategy, team bonding and that kind of thing. I go by the motto of leaving it 110 percent on the field. You have to believe in yourself and not take a pitch off."

Sisters Haley and Morgan Coffey have provided speed in front of Graybill, Brennah Dutcher and Rachel Gabbard. But players like Josie Daley and Brooke Dill have had big hits this season.

"You can look up and down at our scores and you can tell when we hit the ball and we didn't hit the ball," Coach Coffey said. "We did get some real close victories because of our defense. But if we hit the ball in my opinion, we beat them worse than what we did. You have to hit to win. We haven't hit to our ability all year. Hopefully, (Tuesday) busted our bubble with that."

Some of the younger players have served as pinch runners. That includes sophomore Ella Greiwe, freshman Chloe Jansen and eighth grader Brittney Johnson.

"You just have to be smart on the bases," Johnson said. "You just have do your job. We have to know how many out there are and what side the ball is hit. You run with two outs. If the ball is hit to the shortstop and you're on third, you have to watch (their throwing position)."

The key to the Bluebird postseason run has been pitching and defense. Highlands has outscored its four postseason opponents by a combined 30-0. The Bluebirds committed just one error in each region game on the turf.

"The biggest thing is playing our game," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "That's the biggest thing whether we've made it far or we haven't. We want to challenge them in the strike zone and get them to hit a pitcher's pitch and make plays behind our pitchers. They have plenty of pop one through nine. You can't sit on a couple guys. We have to control them and minimize any damage we do have."

Highlands will need to avenge a regular season loss to advance to state. Beechwood run-ruled Highlands, 12-1 in five innings on May 4.

Ricky Raisor pitched six innings in the quarterfinals Monday against Covington Catholic before Ethan Doty threw the seventh. Drew Rom pitched a complete game against St. Henry in the semifinals. The team earned-run average entering the region tournament was 3.37.

"We have a few more guys we haven't thrown," Baioni said. "We're going to get them ready just in case we need them. We have a lot of confidence in all the guys we have available. It's huge having as many quality pitchers as we do. We're going to throw out there whoever we have to and find a way to scratch out a win."

The Bluebirds batted .309 hitting five home runs, 41 doubles and seven triples on the season. Eight players with at least 36 at-bats have hit above .300 on the season led by junior Kyle Finfrock at .439 (18-for-41). Senior Conner Kreeger leads Highlands with six doubles and Mark Walkenhorst has a team-high 28 RBIs.

Kreeger was one of just three returning players with extensive varsity experience from last year's senior-dominated team. Raisor and Doty were the other two.

"Coach Baioni is definitely getting us ready," said Austin Mayhew, Highlands senior. "Everyone is getting a good amount of reps in practice. I just told the guys we have to be smart until we get to that game. We can't think about it a lot. We just have to get out there and execute."

Two region crowns would go a long way particularly in several family households. Baioni's daughter Taylor is a junior outfielder for the Ladybirds and junior Kyle Rust's younger sister Abby is an eighth-grader for the Ladybirds.

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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