That will mean the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team (26-13 overall) will be in the state semi-finals. Highlands lost to Johnson Central (6-2) in the first round of the state tournament in 2016 and to eventual state champion Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park (3-2) in the second round last year. This comes after the Bluebirds finished state runner-up in 2015.
The Bluebirds take on the 8th Region champion South Oldham Dragons (21-12) in the first round of the state tournament Friday at 11 a.m. at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington. This marks the first appearance in school history in the state tournament for the Dragons.
Highlands Head Coach Jeremy Baioni saw the Dragons beat arch-rival North Oldham, 5-2 in the 8th Region championship Saturday. Baioni said he sees some similarities between the two squads.
"They swung it well and played solid defense. They pitched well," Baioni said. "They're a really good team that seems to be playing well toward the end of the season."
On the other side, South Oldham has allowed an average of six runs per game in its five post-season games. The Dragons outscored their five post-season opponents, 50-30 averaging 10 runs per game. North Oldham beat South Oldham, 9-8 in the 29th District championship and South Oldham gave up double digits in an 11-10 win over Collins in the 8th Region semifinals. The Dragons have outscored the competition 241-160 overall.
The pitching staffs have similar earned run averages. It is 3.21 for Highlands compared to 3.23 for South Oldham led by senior right-hander Samuel LaBarbera. LaBarbera is committed to Eastern Kentucky University. LaBarbera is 5-3 with a 1.78 ERA, a save, 48 strikeouts, 39 walks, 48 hits and 42 runs with 13 earned in 51 innings pitched. Baioni said senior right-hander Matthew Roy pitched against North Oldham and has really good off-speed pitches. Roy is 6-4 with a 2.63 ERA, 37 strikeouts, 30 walks, 49 hits and 38 runs including 21 earned in 56 innings pitched.
LaBarbera also leads South Oldham at the plate batting. 474 (45-of-95). LaBarbera has 23 runs scored, 34 RBI, 12 doubles, two triples, five home runs, 11 strikeouts, 15 walks and five stolen bases.
Highlands senior pitcher Drew Rom made headlines earlier in the week when the Baltimore Orioles drafted him in the fourth round with the 115th pick. The left-hander is 8-6 with a 2.4 ERA, 119 strikeouts, 20 walks, 47 hits and 29 runs including 23 earned in 67 innings pitched. At the plate, Rom is batting .375 (18-for-48) with 12 walks, 10 strikeouts, two stolen bases, one triple, six doubles, 12 runs scored and 14 runs batted in. Rom's lone home run this season tied the game 2-2 against Covington Catholic in the region championship.
But senior Hunter Dreves, a University of Tennessee commit, and junior Grady Cramer have given Highlands depth in pitching all season. Dreves is 3-1 with a 5.6 ERA, 54 strikeouts, 39 walks, 22 hits and 29 runs including 28 earned in 35 innings pitched. Cramer is 6-2 with a 2.33 ERA, 56 strikeouts, 29 walks, 47 hits and 25 runs including 17 earned. Juniors Steven Grimme and Tanner Juett have also pitched in the post-season for the Bluebirds.
"It's going to be one of our main focuses given the teams we're going to be playing are a lot better than we're used to," Dreves said. "Hitting your spots is going to be key to winning the game. It's kind of a mental thing. It's usually a high-pressure situation so you need to kind of calm down and just throw strikes."
"I think last week, we saw how important it was when your pitcher earns an out (to) get them the out if it's a fly ball or a ground ball," Baioni said. "The routine plays are the most important because they're just that. They're routine and if you can get outs in those situations whether it's a sacrifice bunt to move a runner, don't try to be a hero. Just get an out because (opponents) are counting on you to make a mistake, get an extra base runner and not get the out. So it's really important to limit base runners, limit the number of stressful pitches that our pitchers are throwing with runners in scoring position and get out when they give it to us."
Highlands has seen a number of hitters rise up in the post-season. The Bluebirds are batting .328 (346-of-1,055) as a team with 17 home runs, 13 triples, 85 doubles and 245 RBI to go with 83 stolen bases, 185 walks and 212 strikeouts. Sophomore Ethan Kavanagh leads Highlands batting .413 (33-of-80) with 33 runs scored, 16 RBI, 10 doubles, three triples, two home runs, 19 walks, seven stolen bases and six strikeouts. Senior Joe Steiden leads Highlands with 15 stolen bases and senior Tyler Gulley is batting .385 (30-of-78) with 34 RBI, eight doubles, six home runs, five walks, three stolen bases and 20 strikeouts.
"Really, I think the biggest part of our hitting is the younger guys who maybe aren't playing are cheering from the bench," said Carson Fitters, Highlands senior. "That's really what I feel gets us going the best."
South Oldham is batting .323 (280-for-868) with 193 RBI, 57 doubles, six triples, 22 home runs. 191 strikeouts, 104 walks and 72 stolen bases. One name the Highlands fans might remember from the fall is sophomore catcher Keaton Martin, who is batting .302 (26-of-86) with 26 runs scored, 19 RBI, four doubles, a home run, 21 strikeouts, 18 walks and 14 stolen bases. Martin rushed for 182 yards on 20 carries for an average of 9.1 per touch and four touchdowns as the Dragons rallied past the Bluebirds, 35-34 in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs in November.
Highlands has played during the day to open the tournament. The Bluebirds opened up against McCracken County at 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time in 2015 in a 5-2 win and at 11 a.m. in 2016 against Johnson Central in a 6-2 loss. The Bluebirds opened the tournament last year at 8:30 p.m. in a 3-1 win over Johnson Central.
But Baioni is not concerned about the state time. He said they play 99 percent of their games during the day. He added you never know how players will react to unfamiliar venues at night because of things like the lights and back drop.
"Obviously, it would be nice to be later in the day," Baioni said. "I think we'd have more people down there because of work and everything else that's going on. But hopefully, we can take care of business on Friday and everybody can come down on Saturday."
Baioni did say being out of the routine of going to school then practicing or playing games in the afternoon and evening is a concern at this time of the year. The seniors held their graduation on May 30.
"They're not drinking soft drinks at school. They're just drinking water so it's a lot easier when you're in that mode for them to monitor themselves," Baioni said. "We just stress to them. You've got to hydrate and we have to hydrate early. Don't think you're going to wake up Friday morning and start drinking water and be hydrated. Hydration starts 24, 48 hours in advance. They guys understand that. These kids know their bodies so well and know so much more about nutrition than we ever did. They do a good job of preparing for the heat and the warm weather."
Highlands went 1-3 against the state tournament competition. The Bluebirds finished 1-1 against 10th Region champion Campbell County. The Bluebirds lost to 16th Region champion Greenup County and to 7th Region champion Louisville St. Xavier.
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 (26-13) vs. South Oldham (21-12), 11 a.m.
Paintsville (25-12) vs. Christian County (20-12), 1:30 p.m.
Campbell County (21-11) vs. McCracken County (32-8), 6 p.m.
Madison Central (30-7) vs. Bowling Green (21-11), 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, June 9:
Greenup County (37-5) vs. Hazard (25-9), 11 a.m.
St. Xavier (34-2) vs. Boyle County (27-6), 1:30 p.m.