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Saturday, June 16, 2018

Highlands-Louisville St. Xavier Game Story

Walks, Home Runs Doom Highlands in State Championship Loss

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior catcher Bryce Ziegler looks over to the dugout for a signal.

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands sophomore Ethan Kavanagh hustles around third to score the first run of the game in the first inning. Kavanagh went 3-for-4 with an RBI and run scored.
PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, The Highlands Bluebirds pose with their state runner-up trophy. Highlands finished the season 29-14 overall.
The only major team accomplishment not in the trophy case for the 9th Region champions stood in front of them.

But in order to gain that first gold trophy, the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team (29-14 overall) had to beat the team that had the most state championships in Kentucky High School Athletic Association history with seven. Compared to three years ago, the Bluebirds stayed competitive with the Tigers for most of the game. But St. Xavier pulled away in the fifth and sixth innings with two home runs to pull off a 10-6 win.

St. Xavier (37-2) captured its third state championship in the last five years. The Tigers beat Campbell County, 1-0 in the 2016 title game and Simon Kenton, 5-2 in the 2014 championship. Highlands also finished state runner-up in 2015 losing 10-3 to West Jessamine.

"Hats off to Highlands. (The Bluebirds) battled like crazy," said Andy Porta, St. Xavier Head Coach. "Highlands junior Grady Cramer came in and shut us down for a little while, but that's a great ball club."

Both teams wound up with similar hitting averages for the game. St. Xavier went 9-for-26 for a .346 batting clip and Highlands went 9-for-29 for a .310 average. The Bluebirds did take advantage of four Tiger errors while committing just one.

The difference came down to walks. Highlands walked 11 batters and St. Xavier only walked four.

"You can't walk guys and give them free base runners," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "They swing it really well. We've talked about it in the last 24 hours. They have pop all the way through their line-up. That caught up with us."

Ryan Nicholson led St. Xavier going 3-for-4 with a double, three runs batted in, two runs scored and the go-ahead two-run home run in the bottom of the fifth inning scoring senior Andrew Littlefield ahead of him. Littlefield hit a three-run home run to right to put St. Xavier up 9-4 in the sixth scoring senior Trey Sweeney and junior Cam Scheler ahead of him. Nicholson scored St. Xavier's 10th run on a junior Brandon Tucker single to put the Tigers up 10-6.

Those four runs in the bottom of the sixth proved to be the difference in the game. In the top of the seventh, senior Tyler Gulley reached on an error and senior Drew Rom smashed a home run to right to make the final score of 10-6 off Tiger junior winning pitcher Brycen Harkins. But Harkins retired three of the next three Highlands batters to finish the game.

"(Battling) is what this group does," Baioni said. "I'm just so proud of them. They just fight, fight and fight and really don't get too bent out of shape. You saw it in the last inning. They were still fighting and putting great at-bats together. We're just so blessed to coach at Highlands with kids like this that just work their tails off and try to do the best they can."

Harkins (8-0) pitched the final three and 2/3 innings to earn the win. He struck out five, walked two and allowed just two hits and two runs including one earned.

Sophomore Ethan Kavanagh led the Bluebirds going 3-for-4 with a run batted in and run scored. Junior Cooper Schwalbach added a triple for Highlands. Rom, Kavanagh and senior third baseman Sam Hennigan made the all-tournament team for the Bluebirds.

Highlands scored in the first inning just like the 4-3 semifinal win over McCracken County. Kavanagh smashed a single up the middle then took second when junior catcher Bryce Ziegler grounded out to first. With two out, Gulley lined one to center that Harkins appeared to track down. But Harkins didn't make the play allowing Kavanagh to hustle around third to score.

But the Tigers came back and took a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the first off Dreves. Junior second baseman Alex Adams walked and took third when junior left fielder Aric Lyons executed a successful hit-and-run. Sweeney then hit a double just over the first-base bag to score Adams and Lyons to put St. Xavier up 2-1. After Scheler singled, Sweeney scored on a Highlands throwing error.

"I'm so happy for these kids," Porta said. "We've had a challenging schedule all year long. We put the pressure on them all year long. They played really tight (Saturday). I'm sure they'll admit that. But they did enough to win the ballgame."

But Cramer came in and retired the next three batters. Cramer kept the Bluebirds in the game pitching four innings. He struck out one and allowed three earned runs, three hits and walked seven.

Highlands trimmed the lead to 3-2 in the top of the third. Senior Joe Steiden walked and Ziegler singled to center. Steiden and junior pinch runner Casey Greene moved up a base on a wild pitch forcing St. Xavier to bring in senior Evan Burnett to pitch. Gulley hit a sacrifice fly to left scoring Steiden.

The Tigers took a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the third. Scheler walked and moved to second on a ground out. With two out, Nicholson singled him home.

But the Bluebirds came back to tie the game in the top of the fourth. Senior Carson Fitters and Cramer led off with consecutive singles before Schwalbach landed a sacrifice bunt to move Fitters to third and senior pinch runner Grant Summers to second. Hennigan then hit a high chopper to third allowing Fitters to score. Summer had to hold at second. Kavanagh then singled home Summers to tie the game before Harkins came in to get the last two outs of the inning for St. Xavier.

The Bluebirds graduate 10 seniors from this class. They are Rom, Gulley, Fitters, Steiden, Dreves, Summers, Ryan Adkins, Hennigan, Jackson Recht and Evan Lewin. The group graduates with two state runner-up finishes, four straight 9th Region championships and four 36th District crowns.

"The senior class is a great group of guys," Recht said. "We've worked so hard since September so it's obviously not the greatest that we weren't able to close it out (Saturday), but I'm proud of every one of these kids. We gave ourselves an opportunity. That's all we can ask for. We ran into a really great baseball team. Their record shows it at 37-2. It just says so much about our program and the people in our community."

Link to Highlands-St. Xavier Box Score:

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:
St. Xavier 3, Hazard 0
Highlands 4, McCracken County 3
Saturday, June 16:
Championship Game:
St. Xavier 10, Highlands 6

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