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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Bluebirds Go Down In Elite Eight

Panthers Make Plays in End to Beat Highlands in State Quarterfinals

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior pitcher Drew Rom delivers to the plate Saturday against Pleasure Ridge Park. Rom struck out eight in the 3-2 Highlands loss.

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands senior Bradley Greene swings through a pitch in the state tournament Saturday against Pleasure Ridge Park.
They always say that you need to beat the best in order to be the best.

The Highlands Bluebirds baseball team (26-13 overall) needed to do that just to make it back to the state championship game like two years ago when the Bluebirds finished state runner-up. The Bluebirds found themselves on the same side of the bracket with the top five ranked teams in Kentucky according to the last MaxPreps poll.

Highlands took out fifth-ranked Johnson Central, 3-1 on Friday setting up a match-up with the fourth-ranked Pleasure Ridge Park Panthers (38-5) Saturday. Unfortunately, Highlands came up short 3-2 despite a valiant effort.

Both Highlands junior pitcher Drew Rom (9-3) and PRP sophomore pitcher Dallas Glass (10-0) threw 108 pitches each for complete games. Rom struck out eight and walked two with Glass striking out two and walking four.

"PRP is a really good baseball team," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "I would not be surprised to see them win the whole thing. We knew in order to beat them, we would have to string some hits together. You have to tip your cap to Dallas Glass. He kept us off-balance all night. Good teams like PRP rarely give you extra outs so you have to be able to knock runs in. We just couldn't get those big hits."

Defensively, both teams played well making one error each. Both teams scored one unearned run off the errors.

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Unfortunately, Highlands could not get PRP's third and fourth hitters out consistently as the combined for six of the nine Panther hits. The third batter in junior third baseman Nick Rucker went 3-for-3 with a run batted in and junior first baseman Matthew Cavanaugh went 3-for-4 with an RBI. Junior shortstop Jalil Akbar scored twice for the Panthers.

The top three Highlands hitters in freshman second baseman Ethan Kavanagh, catcher Kyle Rust and left fielder Trey Bowden reached consistently. Kavanagh and Rust had two hits each for four of the five Highlands hits and Bowden walked three times with Rust walking another time. Bowden and Kavanagh scored the Highlands runs. Senior designated hitter Ethan Doty had the lone run batted in for the Bluebirds.

PRP scored an unearned run to start the scoring in the first inning. Akbar reached on a Highlands fielding error and junior left fielder Reed Blaszcyk bunted him to second. Rucker then singled to left to score Akbar before taking second on the third.

But Rom worked out of the inning and left Rucker on base. Cavanaugh grounded out to first to move Rucker to third before Rom struck out sophomore Dylan Carnes to end the threat.

But Highlands came to tie the game at 1-1 in the bottom of the first. Kavanagh led off with a double and moved to third when Rust put down a great bunt down the third-base line. One out later, Rust stole second and Doty hit a sacrifice fly to score Kavanagh and move Rust to third. Rom struck out to end the inning.

PRP retook the lead in the third inning. Junior second baseman Noah McDonald led off the inning with a triple and scored when Akbar put down a nice squeeze bunt to put the Panthers up 2-1.

Akbar almost scored again after Blaszyck bunted him to second. Rucker singled to right. But Highlands right fielder Joe Steiden threw a nice strike to Rust at home to nail him for the second out. After Cavanaugh and Carnes singled to load the bases, Rom struck out Glass to end the inning.

Highlands had a two-out rally in the third inning. Rust had an infield single and moved to second when Bowden walked. But Glass got Doty to ground out to him unassisted to end the inning.

PRP put two runners on with two out in the fifth. Rucker and Cavanaugh recorded back-to-back singles. But Rom got Carnes to fly out to right to end the inning.

Highlands put across the tying run in the sixth inning. Bowden worked a full-count walk and Doty sacrifice bunted him to second. Rom then hit a grounder to McDonald at second. But McDonald made a bad throw allowing Bowden to come across and tie the game at 2-2 with the unearned run.

But PRP took the lead again in the top of the seventh. With one out, Akbar walked and took second on a failed pick-off attempt. Highlands elected to intentionally walk Walker. But Cavanaugh singled in Akbar on an 0-2 pitch to give the Panthers a 3-2 advantage before Rom got Carnes to ground out unassisted to Finfrock at first to end the inning.

With one out in the bottom of the seventh, Glass hit Brady Gosney with a pitch and Cooper Schwalbach ran for him. But Green picked off Schwalbach at first for the second out. Kavanagh then singled to right to keep the Highlands season alive and moved to second when Rust walked. Bowden then drew a full-count walk to load the bases.

But Highlands could not push across the tying run. Glass got Doty to pop out to second to end the game.

The Bluebirds graduate eight seniors off the team in Rust, Bowden, Doty, Finfrock, Gosney, Bradley Greene, Spencer Dee and Tyler Schwalbach. Highlands went 106-56 in their four years of high school to go with three 9th Region championships, four 36th District crowns and the program's best-ever state runner-up finish in 2014.

"This group of seniors has set the bar extremely high," Baioni said. "Most have been in the baseball program at least five years winning a region championship in all five years at various levels: Freshman, JV and Varsity. More importantly, they have left their mark on what it's like to be great teammates and great classmates. When Tyler Schwalbach went down with a knee injury early in the season, you saw everyone rally around him. While not playing one inning this season, Tyler made a major, positive impact on this team. Wins and losses will be forgotten. Being great teammates and great friends will last a lifetime." 

Highlands will build around the likes of Kavanagh, Rom, Cooper Schwalbach, Bryce Ziegler, Steiden and Sam Hennigan. Pitchers Grady Cramer and Hunter Dreves also return. The Bluebirds could also see players emerge from the 21-6 junior varsity and 10-11 freshman baseball teams.

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