Bluebirds Earn State Quarterfinal Win over 15th Region Champions
Despite three straight appearances in the state tournament, the Highlands Bluebirds (28-13 overall) had not been able to advance past the first weekend following a runner-up finish in 2015. But that changed Saturday as the Bluebirds shut out the Paintsville Tigers, 5-0 in the state quarterfinals at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington.
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The Tigers (26-13) beat Christian County, 3-1 in the first round of the state tournament Friday after Highlands knocked off South Oldham, 4-2. Paintsville had beaten 57th District rival Johnson Central Golden Eagles, 8-1 in the 57th District championship and 5-2 in the 15th Region championship after losing to the Golden Eagles twice during the regular season.
Highlands played Johnson Central in the first round of the state tournament the previous two years. The Golden Eagles beat the Bluebirds, 6-2 in 2016 before the Bluebirds came back and beat the Golden Eagles, 3-1 last year before losing 3-2 to eventual state champion Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park.
Highlands senior Hunter Dreves (4-1) threw a complete game striking out eight, walking four and hitting two batters. The Tigers went in order in just the third and seventh innings. But Dreves stranded six runners including four at third as the Bluebirds again made the routine plays behind him defensively to end innings. His fastball often reached 88 miles per hour and his off-speed came in the low 80s.
Paintsville hit .095 (2-for-21) against Dreves. The University of Tennessee commit retired six in a row at one point and the final five Tiger batters. He mixed in speeds to keep the Tigers off-balance all game. Early run support helped Dreves and the defense out.
"Once they strung a few hits together, a few runs, it was a lot more relaxing for me," Dreves said. "I could just go out and pitch - no pressure to not let guys on base or anything. I'm really excited."
On the other side, Highlands batted .296 (8-of-27) against the two Paintsville pitchers in senior starter lefty Tanner Smith and junior right-hander Ryan Moore. The Bluebirds managed four hits against both pitchers. Smith struck out six and walked six with Moore striking out three and walking one. All five Bluebirds runs were earned.
Highlands has batted .313 (16-for-51) in the two state tournament games. All 16 hits have been singles. The Bluebirds have outscored their seven post-season opponents, 65-6. The Bluebirds stranded 12 runners.
"I think everybody's just trying to figure out a way to help our team win," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "I think that's what it comes down to. Early in the season toward the middle of the year, everybody's trying to barrel balls as hard as they can. Here, it comes down to figuring out a way to get on base and help our team win and a lot of guys are contributing in a bunch of different ways."
Highlands saw three hitters in senior Tyler Gulley, Drew Rom and Sam Hennigan go a combined 6-for-9 with two hits and one run batted in each. Hennigan added a run. The Bluebirds received a ton of experience facing Rom in practice and left-handers like Covington Catholic senior Jack Maile among others throughout the season. So facing lefties like Smith was nothing new to the Bluebird hitters.
"The fact that we have everyone throughout the line-up top to bottom, one through nine coming up with clutch hits says a lot," Gulley said. "They don't have to be gappers, doubles, just anything in the outfield to get on base, advance runners and score runs."
Smith walked to lead off the game and stole both second and third with one out. But Dreves got sophomore Seth Williams to ground out back to him and senior Ben Daniels to pop out to Highlands senior Tyler Gulley in front of the Highlands dugout to strand Smith at third.
"We ran into a better team. They're pretty good," Daniels told the Ashland Daily Independent. "(Dreves) is going to Tennessee for a reason. Man, he just had speed; off-speed was good - stuff we don't see around (Paintsville). It's tough to hit when you see it once a month, I guess."
Highlands mounted its own threat with two out in the bottom of the first. With two out, junior Bryce Ziegler drew a walk and Gulley singled junior Casey Greene, pinch running for Ziegler), to second. But Smith hit the left side of the strike zone on a 2-2 count to strike out senior Drew Rom and end the threat.
Highlands came up huge defensively in the top of the second. Senior Ben Gibson walked, stole second and moved to third when junior Matt Baldwin singled. Gibson slipped running around third or he might have tried to score. Senior Jonathan McKenzie grounded out to Hennigan at third. But while Hennigan threw to first, Gibson broke home. But Gulley fired the ball to Ziegler nailing Gibson for the double play. Baldwin took third on a wild pitch before Dreves got freshman Jake Hyden to ground out back to him to end the inning.
Unlike Friday, Highlands did not go through the order the first time without scoring. With one out in the bottom of the second, junior Cooper Schwalbach walked and took second when Smith threw wildly past Gibson on a pick-off throw at first and third on a passed ball before Dreves drew a walk with senior Grant Summers running for him. Hennigan then lined a single right scoring Schwalbach for the only run the Bluebirds needed to win the game.
"We talked to our guys that the top of the inning has been so important in this entire tournament (with) a lot of lead-off guys hitting home runs and scoring," Baioni said. "It really gives that visiting team the momentum. We talked about trying to manage the adrenaline rush early on, getting three outs, getting a clean inning then coming in, being able to work and hopefully then gain that momentum and take the lead. So it's huge whenever you can do that and put the pressure on (opponents) and you can play a little bit more relaxed."
A wild pitch saw Summers take third and Hennigan second before sophomore Ethan Kavanagh walked to load the bases. Senior Joe Steiden then hit one to left field that landed just in front of Hyden scoring Summers to make it 2-0 Bluebirds.
Some confusion then occurred when Ziegler came up with the bases still loaded and one out. Many thought Smith struck out Ziegler initially. But after Paintsville Head Coach Walt Crace received an explanation from the home plate umpire, Ziegler ended up grounding out to Gibson at first unassisted to score Hennigan and give Highlands a 3-0 lead.
Highlands had another defensive gem at home in the top of the fourth. Daniels singled with one out and moved all the way to third on the lone Bluebird error in the form of a wild throw to first on a pick-off attempt. But Dreves struck out Gibson for the second out before hitting Baldwin with a pitch. Freshman pinch runner Karsten Poe took off for second. Dreves fired to Kavanagh, but Kavanagh quickly fired the ball to Ziegler at home to nail Daniels to end the inning.
"We work on that in practice," Ziegler said. "We call it the walk-off play where the runner on first walks to second. The pitcher is supposed to run him back. If (the runner at third) goes home, we're supposed to throw home. I think we executed it pretty well."
The Bluebirds added two runs in the bottom of the fourth to go up 5-0. Steiden walked to start the inning and Paintsville decided to make a pitching change. Crace discovered he turned in the wrong roster when he brought in sophomore Matt Combs to relieve Smith, who moved to center field. The problem is Combs was not on the roster so he was not eligible. Crace then brought in Moore.
"(The Kentucky High School Athletic Association) lets you have 21. We had 23," Combs told the Daily Indepdendent. "I thought (Combs) was on the roster. It was my mistake. It was on me."
Moore hit Ziegler on a 3-1 count moving Steiden to second. Greene ran for Ziegler. Gulley then singled to right scoring Steiden from second before Rom followed with a single to right to score Greene.
Kavanagh added his own web gem in the top of the sixth. With runners on first and second and one out, Gibson hit one to Kavanagh's right. But Kavanagh ranged just outside the infield dirt and fired the ball to Gulley to get Gibson for the second out. Dreves then got Baldwin to to fly out to Steiden in left to end the inning.
"(Kavanagh) has got that ability," Baioni said of the play. "He hasn't made a ton of those plays all year long, but hasn't had a ton of chances either. That's a fantastic play - one of the better high school plays I've seen from a shortstop."
After Highlands loaded the bases in the sixth without scoring, Dreves retired the side in the seventh to end the game. The final out came in the form of a strikeout of Tiger freshman pinch hitter Braxton Tharp.
Highlands has six appearances in the state tournament in school history. This will mark the third appearance in the state semifinals. The Bluebirds beat Greenup County, 5-2 in the state semifinals in 2015 before losing 10-3 to West Jessamine in the state championship game. The Bluebirds lost to Louisville Fern Creek, 4-3 in the state semifinals in 1965.
The first appearance for the Bluebirds in the state tournament came in 1959. The Bluebirds lost to Greenville, 2-1 in the state quarterfinals that year. Greenville is currently part of Muhlenberg County - the 2018 2nd Region champion.
Link to Highlands-Paintsville 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:
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:
TBD, 7 p.m.