|Dreves, Rom Strike Out Combined 15 Cougars in Bluebird Win|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. The Highlands Bluebirds baseball team celebrates its third straight 9th Region championship after a 5-2 win over the Conner Cougars.|
The Bluebirds (25-12 overall) maintained its focus seen throughout the first four games of the post-season, especially on the mound, to ride past the Conner Cougars (27-10) for their third straight 9th Region championship Thursday by a 5-2 count. Highlands made its fifth appearance in six seasons in the region title game and moved to 13-3 in region play the last six seasons starting with the 2012 run to the region title game.
"I won't say that we necessarily have peaked," said Jeremy Baioni, Highands Head Coach. "One of the things I'm most proud of is we have a bunch of guys from 2014, 2015, 2013 that show up at practice. They want to be with our guys and they want to work with our guys. That's the family atmosphere that we've created."
Things started on the mound with starter Hunter Dreves in the first two innings before the left-handed Drew Rom finished the Cougars off in the last five innings. The two combined for 15 strikeouts on the evening to go with just three walks. They held the Cougars to just 2-for-23 at the plate for a .087 average. Tim Sherman had both Cougar hits.
"That definitely worked to my advantage because people aren't used to seeing lefties at all, especially in the 9th Region," Rom said. "We only have one or two. Just the angle and ball movement really creates the strikeout pitch on the fastball."
The Bluebirds did make some nice plays defensively behind Dreves and Rom despite committing four errors to none for the Cougars. One came with two out and a runner on third to end the fifth inning. Griffin Henry hit a shallow pop-up to right. Right fielder Joe Steiden, second baseman Ethan Kavanagh at second and first baseman Kyle Finfrock converged on the ball. But Kavanagh leaned to his right to record the out.
"(Communication) is very vital because you can get injured," Steiden said. "A lot of bad things can happen if you aren't communicating with your teammates. Balls like that are hit really high in the air so a lot of guys can get to the ball. With a ball like that, I have priority so if I want that ball, I'll get it. But if I don't think I'm going to catch it, I'm going to let (Kavanagh) catch it because he's camped under it."
On the other side offensively, Highlands hit 9-for-23 for a .391 clip. All but one slot recorded a hit and all nine reached base at least once as the Bluebirds drew four walks and hit one hit by a pitch. Kavanagh led Highlands going 2-for-4 with a run scored at the lead-off spot.
Highlands did not record double-digit hits in a game for the first time this post-season. But the Bluebirds still have 60 hits in the five games and have outscored the opposition, 55-12.
That run reminds Baioni of the the West Jessamine team that beat Highlands, 10-3 in the 2015 state championship game. The Colts scored at least 10 runs in all four state tournament games on their way to the crown.
"I was really proud of the the guys," Baioni said. "They did a great job of seeing balls and just hitting them hard and not trying to hit them out of the ballpark. We still hit a lot of ball hard that they made plays on. But (I was) really impressed with how they went through the process and did what they could to help their team."
Highlands took the lead for good in the third inning. With one out, Ethan Doty singled Trey Bowden to third and Drew Rom walked to load the bases against Conner starting pitcher Noah Litke. On a 3-1 count, Finfrock hit a deep ball to left that dropped near the warning track and bounced over the wall for a ground-rule double scoring Doty and Rom to put Highlands up for good at 3-2.
But Highlands made sure it earned more runs to build some distance. Sam Hennigan stepped up and smacked a single to right center scoring pinch-runners Cooper Schwalbach and Grant Summers to make the final score of 5-2.
"It was huge because everyone matters," Hennigan said. "One play can cause a ton of runs to score. So (helping) your defense relax is key. Experience helps."
The Bluebirds hoped to keep Conner lead-off hitter Ben North off the bases. He reached all three times on two walks and an error. North also stole three bases but only scored once.
North drew a walk to lead off the game, stole second and took third on a balk. But after a meeting on the mound, Dreves took care of the next three Conner batters striking out two to leave North at third.
"I think sometimes all of our pitchers try to be perfect," Baioni said. "Their stuff is good enough. They just need to throw and just challenge hitters. But it was a big moment. Starting the 9th Region Final was a big moment. I just wanted to make sure (Dreves) was okay. I'm super proud of the way everyone battled. (Dreves) made some big pitches to keep us in it early and did a great job for us."
Highlands scored the game's first run in the bottom of the inning. Kavanagh singled sharply and Rust bunted him to second. Bowden then walked and Doty grounded out moving Kavanagh to third and Bowden to second. Rom then singled over the mound scoring Kavanagh before Bowden was out on a run-down between third and home.
Conner tied the game in the second. Juan Villegas walked, stole second and scored on a Sherman single. Sherman took second on a Highlands error. Villegas stole third before Dreves struck out the next three Cougar batters to leave him at third.
The Cougars then took the lead in the third. North walked, took second on a sacrifice bunt, stole third and scored on a similar play that lifted the Cougars to a 3-2 win over Dixie Heights in the region semifinals Tuesday. Henry grounded out to Kavanagh at second. On the throw to first, North darted home and the throw there was off-target letting North score and give the Cougars a 2-1 advantage.
Rust earned the tournament's most valuable player honors. Finfrock, Hennigan and Rom also made the all-tournament squad.
Highlands does not play again until a week from Fridy on June 9. The Bluebirds will face the same team that eliminated them in the state tournament last year by a 6-2 count in the 15th Region champion Johnson Central Golden Eagles (31-7). Game time at Whitaker Bank Ballpark is 8:30 p.m.