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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Baseball State Semifinal Preview: Highlands vs. McCracken County

Highlands Set for Match-up Against McCracken County

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior Casey Greene scores in the bottom of the fourth inning in the state quarterfinals against Paintsville on Saturday. 
The last time the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team faced the McCracken County Mustangs, the end goal was winning its first state tournament game in 50 years.

Highlands did just that on June 2, 2015 rallying past the top-ranked Mustangs, 5-2 to open the state tournament at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. The Bluebirds finished state runner-up that year.

The Bluebirds have since made it back to Lexington four straight years while the Mustangs have come back five straight times since the school opened in 2013. But while Highlands lost in the first round to Johnson Central (6-2) in 2016 and to eventual state champion Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park (3-2) in the second round last year, McCracken County has reached the semifinals a third straight year. The 1st Region Champion Mustangs lost to eventual state champion Louisville St. Xavier, 3-2 in nine innings in the semifinals in 2016 and 6-3 to Pleasure Ridge Park in the semifinals last year.

The teams meet Friday at 8:30 p.m. in the state semifinals for the right to play for the state championship Saturday back at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington. Both teams have six days in between games. But Highlands had seven days in between the 9th Region championship win (3-2) over Covington Catholic and the first round of the state championship, a 4-2 win over South Oldham. The Bluebirds beat Paintsville, 5-0 Saturday to make it to the second weekend of the state tournament.

"We really started focusing on developing a game plan for South Oldham early in the week," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "We're going to do the same thing this week trying to put in our game plan as quickly as possible for McCracken. The tough thing is turning around then if you win and playing the next day with not much time to game plan."

McCracken County also had six days in between the quarterfinals and semifinals in 2016 and 2017. McCracken County Head Coach Geno Miller admitted he wished the Mustangs (34-8) were playing Sunday after a 16-0 five-inning win over Bowling Green on Saturday.

"We have to go back and keep the guys focused in, which they're a senior-dominant group," Miller said. "We know that it's going to take a great performance to get by a really good Highlands team on Friday. They're going to take it one game at a time. We're going to have to take steps back and reassess. They're high school kids, but again, they're very experienced at being here and they want to take this one step further. We've had the opportunity to be here three straight years in the semifinals and they want it really bad."

Highlands has made it this far with solid defense, pitching and timely hitting. The Bluebirds have outscored their seven post-season opponents, 65-6. On the other side, McCracken County run-ruled its first two opponents in the state tournament five innings in Campbell County, 14-3 and Bowling Green.

"It's a very good baseball team. They're coached well, very disciplined," Baioni said of McCracken County. "They have some talented players. We're just going over our normal stuff getting into plate discipline and making the routine plays."

McCracken County batted .520 (25-for-48) in those two wins. Senior center fielder Rook Ellington, a University of Kentucky commit, led the way going 5-for-7 with six runs batted in, four runs scored, a double, triple, and stolen base to lead the way. Against Campbell County, junior Dylan Schneider homered with senior Camerson Langston and junior Kial Waldron also doubling. Against Bowling Green, sophomore Elijah Wheat and senior Will Sykes doubled.

"You have to keep the ball down. You have to change speeds and keep them off-balance," Baioni said. "One through nine, they really swing it. (In) the first couple games, they took advantage of some mistakes whether it was some walked batters or some throwing errors. Against a good team like that, you can't make those mistakes because they're going to capitalize on them. So we're going to try to minimize the mistakes and try to really challenge hitters down in the zone then see if offensively, we can scratch a few runs across."

Highlands has the pitching staff led by senior Mr. Kentucky Baseball Drew Rom (9-6). Rom, the fourth-round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles, allowed a lead-off home run to JT Benson in the South Oldham win. But the left-handed Rom finished with a complete game striking out 10, walking three and allowing four hits and one earned run.

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"I know of Drew Rom. He's a very talented young man," Miller said. "It's just going to be one of those things where we go back and assess of how we want to try to attack him. When you get here in the semifinals, it doesn't matter who you play. You're going to see a gun and these guys know that. We've been very fortunate this year to see some really good arms. I know he's special, but hopefully it won't something that will be just too overwhelming that we can go out there and compete with."

Highlands senior Hunter Dreves followed up Saturday with a complete game against Paintsville. Dreves shut out the Tigers allowing just two hits while striking out eight and walking four. Juniors Tanner Juett, Steven Grimme and Grady Cramer have also seen action this post-season.

"We know they have some hitters that can swing it," Grimme said. "As long as we locate our pitches and our defense shows up, I think we should be fine. If they put the ball in play, we know our defense can make the plays and get them out. The coaching staff has scouted everybody pretty well. They get us pretty prepared for everything."

Baioni and staff can't emphasize making routine plays enough in the post-season. The Bluebirds made one error in each of the first two wins of the state tournament. South Oldham scored an unearned run off the lone Highlands error in the top of the seventh.

"It's just important to get routine outs for our pitchers and keeping their pitch counts down so they can go longer and we can (save) pitchers for the rest of the tournament," said Kyle Winkler, Highlands junior outfielder. "You just have to keep the mistakes to a minimum when you're playing good teams. By making the routine plays, they allow you to get wins."

Offensively, Highlands is batting .314 (16-of-51). All 16 hits have gone for singles. Senior Sam Hennigan and sophomore shortstop Ethan Kavanagh had two-run singles against South Oldham. Three batters have recorded two hits in each of the two games.

One area Highlands wants to improve upon before Friday is not leaving as many runners on base. The Bluebirds left eight on base against South Oldham and 12 on base against Paintsville.

"I think it's a mindset. With nobody on, we're trying to get something started and trying to get on base anyway possible," Baioni said. "With guys in scoring position, guys are over-swinging a little bit trying to knock the guy from first in instead of taking the same approach they would if nobody was on just trying to figure a way to get on base and keep the rally going. So we have to do a little better job of that."

Schneider threw a complete game against Bowling Green. He struck out six, walked one and allowed just three hits. Junior Jacob Ehling started against Campbell County and threw four innings striking out seven and allowing seven hits and three earned runs. Freshman Brandon Dodd finished the game pitching the fifth. The Mustangs committed two errors against Campbell County and none against Bowling Green.

"They're almost goofy. They're kind of a goofy group anyway," Miller said. "But hey, whatever's working for them. I want them to be relaxed. I want them to play with confidence and they're really doing that right now."

Highlands split both games with Campbell County during the regular season. The other common opponent is the seven-time state champion St. Xavier Tigers (35-2), who is playing Hazard in the other semifinal game. McCracken County handed the Tigers one of their two losses, 7-6 in 10 innings on May 12. The Bluebirds led the Tigers, 2-1 entering the seventh inning before losing 4-3 to conclude the regular season on May 19.
Barre3 Ft. Thomas. 

2018 KHSAA State Baseball Tournament Schedule:

At Whitaker Bank Ballpark, Lexington.
Thursday, June 7:
Greenup County 10, Muhlenberg County 0 (6 innings)
Hazard 5, Corbin 1
St. Xavier 13, Pleasure Ridge Park 7
Boyle County 10, LaRue County 0 (5 innings)
Friday, June 8:
Highlands 4, South Oldham 2
Paintsville 3, Christian County 1
McCracken County 14, Campbell County 3 (5 innings)
Bowling Green 8, Madison Central 6
Saturday, June 9:
Hazard 7, Greenup County 5
St. Xavier 9, Boyle County 5
Highlands 5, Paintsville 0
McCracken County 16, Bowling Green 0 (5 innings)
Friday, June 15:
State Semifinals:
Hazard (26-9) vs. St. Xavier (35-2), 6 p.m.
Highlands (28-13) vs. McCracken County (34-8), 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, June 16:
Championship Game:
TBD, 7 p.m.

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