|Bluebirds field deep squad|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Ethan Doty returns as part of another deep Bluebird pitching staff.|
Entering his ninth season, Head Coach Jeremy Baioni and staff have guided the Bluebirds to the point where the program only has one thing left to accomplish. That's a gold trophy.
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Highlands hoped to make a run like two years ago when the Bluebirds drove the deepest they'd ever gone in the postseason with a school-record 35-7 record and state runner-up finish. Highlands (23-18 last year) repeated as 9th Region champs last year and won its fifth straight 36th District crown, but the 15th Region champion Johnson Central Golden Eagles scored five times in the bottom of the sixth on their way to eliminating the Bluebirds, 6-2 in the first round of the state tournament.
Highlands graduated seven seniors from that squad including ace pitcher Ricky Raisor (6-4 record last year). The other six are first basemen Mark Walkenhorst, Hunter Henschen, outfielders Austin Beal, Conner Kreeger and infielders Austin Mayhew and Trent Casebolt.
But the Bluebirds return a lot more players with varsity experience this season. That includes a number of starters.
"We've talked about it for months now that this is the most depth we've ever had in this program," Baioni said. "We will have guys that will be situational pitchers on the mound, hitters at the plate and defensive replacements. We haven't really had that luxury in the past. It's a good and bad thing because we have a lot of guys ability-wise who could start for a lot of teams. They may have to accept a role that is a step from what they want. But all these guys want to be a part of a winning team so that's a good thing."
One of the returning starters is senior outfielder Brad Greene. He said he notices the Bluebirds come to practice with a strong desire.
"I think coming to practice, everyone has an edge to them. We're out to prove something," Greene said. "We're definitely looking at state. That's our ultimate goal. Anything less than that will be a disappointment to us. We're pretty optimistic. I don't think we (seniors) have to say much because we're coming to practice with great energy, great attitudes. I think we're heading in the right direction."
Greene is part of another strong class of seniors. Senior outfielder Trey Bowden also returns along with catcher Kyle Rust. The two batted first and second last year. Senior Brady Gosney also returns at shortstop along with senior pitcher Ethan Doty. The other two returning starters are junior pitcher/outfielder Drew Rom and junior third baseman Sam Hennigan. Senior Kyle Finfrock started some last year but injuries cut his junior year short. Senior Tyler Schwalbach could also push for playing time in the infield.
Doty and Rom headline the pitching staff. Others who saw action on the mound last year were senior Spencer Dee, junior Hunter Dreves, Finfrock, sophomore Grady Cramer and Gosney. Doty said a number of players are throwing anywhere between an impressive 86 and 90 miles per hour. But the Bluebirds are focused just as much on location as throwing hard.
"Coach Baioni is really focused on control and command," Doty said. "Let's say you have a pitching that's throwing 88 and you have a pitcher that's throwing 85. He'd take the pitcher throwing 85 and hitting his spots over the 88 throwing-hard guy. He'd start that guy in a clutch situation than a guy throwing hard because the guy the guy that has good speed and can hit his spots is more effective than a guy who throws hard. When you're on the mound, you can't just be a thrower. You have to be a pitcher. You have to know how hitters work, what's working on your day and what you can do to get hitters out. It's not about just throwing the baseball."
Highlands played sound defense for the most part last year and batted just above .300 as a team. Baioni said the Bluebirds talk about adjustments all the time. At the plate, he said they go beyond at-bats. The Bluebirds hope to jump on fastballs and take good swings at other pitches.
"When you're in your at-bat, you may get three or four pitches," Baioni said. "But when you're in the dugout, you're going to see an extra 30 before you come back up. We talk to our guys about whether you strike out, walk or get a hit, when you come back to the dugout, pass along that information so our guys are not just seeing three or four at the plate, but he's visualizing another 10 to 30 and we can make that adjustment a little bit quicker."
A number of other players are battling for playing time. They are juniors Evan Lewin at catcher, Carson Fitters on the infield and catcher, Joe Steiden in the oufield in addition to sophomore Bryce Ziegler at catcher and Cooper Schwalbach in the outfield and pitching.
Highlands faces a loaded schedule to prepare for the postseason. That includes four games against Greater Catholic League South opponents and three games in Tennessee. The Bluebirds could face pitchers that throw hard in those games.
"Velocity gives you less time to realize what that pitch is," Baioni said. "A lot of guys are just swinging not knowing where the ball is going to go. (With) a guy that really throws it hard with a four-seam (fastball), with a nice change-up and curve ball, we're going to swing at a lot more pitches out of the zone because you have less time to react, which is what we've used to our advantage the last few years having guys that threw it well."
Highlands scrimmages Conner at Highland Park at Noon on March 11. The Bluebirds then travel to Hebron to face the Cougars on March 21 at 5 p.m.