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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Aiming for Nine Straight in 9th Region Championship

Bluebirds Battle Cougars with Trip to Lexington on Line

PHOTO: Bob Jackson. Highlands seniors Trey Bowden (middle) celebrates after scoring a run while teammate Kyle Finfrock (25) hands him the bat in Tuesday's 9th Region semifinal win over St. Henry. The Bluebirds are looking for their third straight region championship Thursday at 7 p.m. against the Conner Cougars back at UC Health Stadium.
Three years ago, the Conner Cougars beat the Highlands Bluebirds, 3-0 in the 9th Region championship game.

After the game, Conner Head Coach Brad Arlinghaus showed the expected excitement of leading the Cougars to the state tournament. But at the same time, he said he wished his good friend in Highlands Head Coach Jeremy Baioni and the Bluebirds could also experience the joy of going to the state tournament.

Since that day on May 28, 2014, Highlands has reeled off eight straight victories in the 9th Region Tournament at University of Cincinnati Health Stadium including the last two region crowns. The Bluebirds are a region-best 12-3 in region play in the last six seasons starting with their run to the region championship in 2012 that included a 9-6 win over the Cougars in the 9th Region quarterfinals.

The six-time 36th District champion Bluebirds (24-12 overall) meet the Cougars (27-9) in the 9th Region championship game Thursday back at UC Health Stadium in Florence. Game time is 7 p.m.

The two teams had each other on their schedules twice this year. But both meetings were rained out.

The teams did not have similar type victories in the region semifinals. Highlands scored 15 runs in the first two innings against St. Henry on its way to a five-inning 15-1 run-ruling Tuesday. In the second game, Conner junior Ben North scored from third ahead of the throw home from first after his teammate grounded out back to the mound to give the Cougars a 3-2 victory over Dixie Heights. Arlinghaus said that was huge after Conner left 11 runners on base from the eighth inning on in the 2-1 loss in 13 innings to Cooper in the 33rd District championship game.

"(Tuesday) night showed us how mentally tough we can be," Arlinghaus said. "We come off the high of beating CovCath (7-4 Monday in the region quarterfinals) then we come out and give up two runs in the first inning. We definitely went back on our heels. But they just kept battling and battling. Literally, we scratched together three runs and we didn't get one ball out of the infield."

Beechwood did challenge Highlands in the 9th Region quarterfinals on Monday. The Bluebirds scored twice in the bottom of the sixth to win that game 6-4. But Highlands has scored double-digits in its other three post-season games. The Bluebirds have put together a total of 51 hits in outscoring its four post-season opponents, 50-10.

"I've been confident with some of the teams we've had that we could compete for a regional title," Baioni said. "I'm not sure a team that we've had has been as hot offensively. I'm probably going to just jinx myself right there. We've played good defense all year. We've gotten good pitching all year. But to catch fire offensively is really a good thing to see. Hopefully we can carry that momentum into the finals."

Highlands saw four players record multi-hit games with all but one slot recording at least one hit against St. Henry. Kyle Rust led the way going 3-for-4 with three runs scored, a triple and four runs batted in. His three-run triple in the first inning gave Highlands a 9-0 advantage. Lead-off hitter Ethan Kavanagh also had three hits to go with three runs scored an an RBI.

Highlands senior pitcher Ethan Doty will not be available Thursday after pitching six-plus innings against Beechwood. The same will be true for Conner ace Nick Craddock, who also pitched Monday against CovCath.

"Now, you just turn to the next man up," Arlinghaus said. "We really haven't had a defined number two (pitcher) all year. Throughout the year, we've had seniors step up and juniors step up. Our pitchers got to throw strikes and have them put the ball in play and let our defense play behind them. There's no better program up here than Highlands."

That could favor the Bluebirds who will likely start junior left-hander Drew Rom. The University of Michigan commit threw less than 50 pitches Tuesday making him available Thursday. Hunter Dreves and Grady Cramer also pitched against St. Henry.

"If you would have told us at the beginning of the year that you're going into the regional finals and you have everybody available but Ethan, we would have taken it," Baioni said. "We'd have taken it 100 times out of 100 because we feel we have a pretty deep pitching staff."

Senior Spencer Dee has also given Highlands some nice outings this year. He's ready to go if called on Thursday.

"I just think about throwing strikes and think about the task at hand," Dee said. "I then go out, warm up and get my mind ready. For us seniors, it's our last ride. But every year that I've played at Highlands, we were always up for the region. It's the biggest time of the year."

This is the last ride for eight Highlands seniors. Several started on last year's region championship team that lost 6-2 to Johnson Central in the first round of the state tournament last year. Bradley Green pinch-ran as a sophomore on the 2015 state runner-up squad and Doty has been a key to the pitching staff these last three years.

The seniors are trying to show the same leadership they've seen from previous classes. Bradley Greene has a younger brother in Casey, a rising junior, who is also a three-sport athlete at Highlands.

"It's what we've trained for for a long time. This is the pinnacle of our season," Bradley Greene said. "This is what we do (the year-round training) for. We've put in a lot of work and it's nice to see it pay off."

The winner plays the Johnson Central Golden Eagles (31-7) from the 15th Region on Friday, June 9. That game starts at 8:30 p.m. at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.

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