Highlands owns a record of 84-38 with three consecutive 9th Region championships during that time and has won six straight 36th District championships. The Bluebirds avenged a 2016 first-round loss to Johnson Central with a 3-1 to open last year's state tournament before losing a tight 3-2 game to eventual state champion Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park. Highlands finished state runner-up in 2015.
Highlands graduated seven seniors off last year's 26-13 squad including six starters. The starters were catcher Kyle Rust, outfielder Trey Bowden, first baseman Kyle Finfrock, outfielder Brad Greene, shortstop Brady Gosney and pitcher/infielder/designated hitter Ethan Doty. Pitcher Spencer Dee and third baseman Tyler Schwalbach also graduated. Doty took his talents to NCAA Division III Otterbein College in Westerville (Ohio) and Bowden is playing down the road at Northern Kentucky University.
"Our guys are extremely competitive," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "They're competitive with each other and they're competitive when we get on the field and we play somebody else so it's really been easy to keep them focused. There are not many days where they're taking a day off or taking things easy. They're working non-stop and they're pushing each other too."
When not pitching, Rom will play in the outfield and Dreves will play in the infield. The pitching staff will focus on throwing hard and hitting spots which are usual keys to success. Highlands outscored opponents, 238-136 last year for averages of just above six runs to between three and four runs per game.
"We have to hit spots in order to get people out, especially against better teams," Dreves said. "You have to try to keep command of the game. You don't want to lose control and let it get up into your head. That keeps you in the game."
Highlands lists two left-handed pitchers and seven right-handers. The other lefty is sophomore Collin Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth could also play in the outfield. The other six right-handers are senior Ryan Adkins, juniors Grady Cramer, Kyle Winkler, Nolan Turner, Steven Grimme and Tanner Juett. Grimme will play third when not pitching and Juett at first. Adkins, Cramer, Winkler and Turner could play in the outfield when not pitching.
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"Most of the seniors are keeping everything under control and making sure people are doing what they're supposed to be doing," Hennigan said. "Younger kids look up to the seniors. The seniors are doing a good job of being a good role model for them."
Highlands has another strong senior class with 10. Tyler Gulley and Jackson Recht will battle for time at first base. Grant Summers and Carson Fitters are looking to step into a spot on the infield and Evan Lewin could step into the catcher role.
There are 11 juniors and three sophomores on the roster. The other sophomore is catcher/infielder Mason Schwalbach.
Junior outfielder Cooper Schwalbach and catcher/third baseman Bryce Ziegler had big roles pinch running last year. Another junior in Casey Greene could battle for time in the outfield and Chris Bridewell could battle for time in the infield and junior Trey Gabbard is listed as a first baseman. Trent Johnson is listed as a catcher, but is currently out for the season.
"We have a lot of details to go through," Baioni said. "The good news is most of these guys have been doing that for four, five years so it's not going to take long to get them to trigger their memories and get them to pick this stuff back up. We're looking forward to getting that stuff and maybe implementing a few other things because they are so ready for that."
Highlands plays another challenging schedule against the likes of Cincinnati Elder, Greenup County in addition to a trip to Myrtle Beach. The Bluebirds also play Covington Catholic three times with one game at Great American Ballpark.
"It's a process. Our guys have adopted that," Baioni said. "The competitive games we're playing in Myrtle Beach and the great competition in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky that we'll see is going to help prepare us for that. This year, I think this is one of the toughest regions in the last four, five years. There are a lot of really talented teams - teams that have plenty of arms out there. We've talked a lot about getting going, but nobody's said they want to go right into the regional tournament. We really want to go out, compete and see what we're made of and see what we need to work on to achieve our goals."
Highlands opens the season March 21 at Highland Park against Campbell County. Game time is 5 p.m.