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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Unconventional Walk-Off Propels Bluebirds to Four-Peat

Bluebirds Overcome Determined Colonels in 9th Region Title Game

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, The Highlands baseball team raises four fingers in honor of its fourth straight 9th Region championship at UC Health Stadium. The Bluebirds beat Covington Catholic, 3-2 to win the crown.
PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands senior Drew Rom delivers to the plate in the region championship game. Rom retired 12-of-13 batters he faced in relief including seven strikeouts on his way to the Tournament MVP. Rom also went 2-for-2 with two RBI, a run scored and two hits by a pitch. His last HBP came with the bases loaded to end the game scoring sophomore Ethan Kavanagh.
It took an unconventional walk-off to overcome an arch-rival team known for its unconventional strategies.

But the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team (26-13 overall) happily took it to win its unprecedented fourth consecutive 9th Region crown by a 3-2 count over the Covington Catholic Colonels (26-11). Highlands senior pitcher Drew Rom absorbed a hit by  pitch on a 3-0 count from CovCath senior left-handed pitcher Jack Maile with the bases loaded and two out to score sophomore Ethan Kavanagh for the walk-off in the bottom of the seventh inning.

"I like the pressure that I put on myself. It's just something that I like to go out and do every day," Rom said of hitting and pitching. "I didn't expect (the walk-off HBP) at all. I just wanted to go out there and win. There's no better way to end it."

Highlands did not score 11 or more runs for the first time this post-season. But the Bluebirds have still outscored their five post-season opponents, 56-4.

"The focus has always been to win the next pitch," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "In the regular season, it's so tough because you have so many games that you're playing and so many guys moving in and out. Our guys are focused on winning that next pitch. They grinded out at-bats like crazy. We didn't barrel as many balls as we'd have liked, but we still fought enough to get the job done."

With one out, Kavanagh hit one to the gap in right center field and raced around to third base for the triple to put the winning run 90 feet from home plate. That's when veteran CovCath Head Coach Bill Krumpelbeck elected to intentionally walk Highlands senior Joe Steiden and junior Bryce Ziegler to load the bases for senior Tyler Gulley.

Senior Tyler Gulley battled Maile to a full count. Gulley fouled some pitches off with the full count before lining one to left field. It appeared to be dropping in for a hit. But CovCath senior left fielder Logan Beale dove to make the catch forcing Kavanagh to retreat back to third to avoid being doubled off.

"We wanted to win for the next guy," Baioni said. "That's the most important thing. That's a heck of a team over there (in Park Hills). Their pitchers threw it well. They played great defense. But we battled enough that we were able to get it done. Give all the credit to the kids. They're the ones that got it done."

Gulley had not played on any of the last three region championship teams. He moved in from Pennsylvania in between his junior and senior year.

"We want (to win) state bad. We just want to win," Gulley said. "We've been putting in the effort and the training since September. Now that we won the region and are going to state, we're going to put in that extra effort."

The last team to win four or more 9th Region championships was the Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds. They won seven straight between 1948 and 1954 also winning the state championship in 1950 during that run.

Krumpelbeck recorded his 1,000th victory as head coach of the Colonels on Tuesday in the region semifinals in a 12-0 five-inning win over St. Henry. Krumpbelbeck is the lone active head coach in Northern Kentucky to win a state championship in 2002. The Colonels last won the region in 2008 and finished runner-up in 2009.

But between 2012 and last year, the Colonels had struggled in region play going just 1-6 with the lone win coming against St. Henry (3-0) in the region quarterfinals in 2014. This marked the first appearance in the region championship since 2009 for the Colonels.

Highlands will take on the 8th Region winner to open the state tournament on Friday, June 8 at 11 a.m. at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington. The opponent will either be North Oldham (28-7) or South Oldham (20-11) from the 29th District.

Region Tournament Most Valuable Player Rom finished 2-for-2 with a home run, two runs batted in and a run scored. He tied the game at 2-2 in the bottom of the fourth. Rom hit a 1-2 pitch from CovCath junior starting pitcher Evan Stallman over the wall in left field.

Rom's single to lead off the second paved the way for the first Highlands run. Two outs later, senior pinch runner Ryan Adkins took second after junior Cooper Schwalbach drew a walk with the bases loaded. Senior Sam Hennigan then singled to right center scoring Adkins to trim the CovCath lead to 2-1.

Rom took over with one out in the top of the fourth on the mound. He'd retire 12 of the 13 Colonel batters he'd face on his way to the win including seven strikeouts. The only CovCath batter to reach on Rom came with two out in the sixth when senior Michael Schaefer singled.

Highlands made the routine plays only committing one error on a dropped foul ball. Schwalbach made a diving play in center field taking away a hit from Beagle to start the fifth inning.

"It was a big play in the game," Schwalbach said. "If I don't catch that, it's a home run. It just changes the whole momentum of the game. I just read the ball, took a chance and went after it. Luckily, I came up with it. You just have to commit to it."

CovCath only committed two errors, but they did not lead to any Bluebird runs. They came in the first inning. Kavanagh struck out, but the ball hit the dirt. The throw from CovCath senior catcher Andy Kennedy was high allowing Kavanagh to reach. Kavanagh then took second when Stallman threw an errant pick-off throw.

The Bluebirds wound up hitting .231 for the game going 6-for-26 against Maile and Stallman with three walks and 11 strikeouts. CovCath went 5-for-20 for a .250 average with three walks, three sacrifice bunts and a sacrifice fly.

Senior Hunter Dreves started the game for the Bluebirds. Dreves retired the Colonels in order in the first inning and struck out junior center fielder Casey McGinness to start the second.

But the Colonels scored twice in the second inning. Senior second baseman Justin Colvin walked and took second when Schaefer singled. Junior John Schuh pinch ran for Colvin. Schuh scored when senior third baseman Thomas Cody lined a double to left field. Maile then landed a suicide squeeze scoring Schaefer before Kennedy walked.

But junior Grady Cramer relieved Dreves and ended the inning on a rundown. He threw to third baseman Hennigan as Cody bolted home. Hennigan threw to Ziegler at the plate to nail Cody.

"It was really no different," Baioni said. "It was just (to) keep playing. Keep executing. We thought we could score some runs. I thought we were going to score some runs earlier and a little more often. But again, it's a credit to CovCath's pitchers. They did a good job keeping guys off-balance."

CovCath put runners at first and third with two out in the top of the third. But Colvin hit a ground ball to Kavanagh at short. Kavanagh threw to junior Chris Bridewell at second to force out CovCath junior designated hitter Jack Coldiron.

Highlands put four players total on the all-tournament team. Aside from Rom, they were Hennigan, senior Carson Fitters and Cramer.

Highlands has gone 4-3 during the state tournament. The Bluebirds finished state runner-up to West Jessamine in 2015, lost to Johnson Central in the first round in 2016 and lost 3-2 to eventual state champion Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park in the second round last year.

9th Championship Postponed to Friday:

The Highland softball team (20-10) will play for the region championship at 5:30 p.m. Friday back at Veterans Memorial Park in Newport against Ryle (22-6). Excessive rain pushed the game back a day.

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