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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Spring is here! Opening Day starts today for Highlands Baseball

 Bluebirds Seek More Success
PHOTO: G. Michael Graham. The Highlands baseball team owns 10 region championships in school history.
Players and coaches may not be able to rattle off various stats such as the number of consecutive wins over district opponents.

But the region and state tournaments stats seem to be a different story. Veteran Head Coach Jeremy Baioni, the assistants and players of the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team can quickly tell you the Bluebirds are 12-0 in the 9th Region Tournament the past four years.
Highlands made it four straight region championships last year with a thrilling 3-2 win over Covington Catholic in the region championship game. Highlands then drove all the way back to the state championship game before losing 10-6 to Louisville St. Xavier. The Bluebirds finished 29-14 overall and finished state runner-up for the second time in four seasons.

The only thing the Bluebirds still have not done is win the state championship. Highlands owns 10 region championships in school history but had not driven to the state title game until 2015 when it lost 10-3 to West Jessamine.

Highlands will again have to reload without a strong senior class. The Bluebirds graduated 10 players off last year's team including pitchers Drew Rom and Hunter Dreves. The Baltimore Orioles drafted Rom in the fourth round as the 115th pick. Rom is pitching in the Gulf Coast Rookie League down in Sarasota (Florida) and Dreves took his talents to the University of Tennessee.

Highlands also graduated several other corners in first baseman Tyler Gulley, third baseman Sam Hennigan and left fielder Joe Steiden. Rom played right when not pitching. The other five players to graduate are Ryan Adkins, Carson Fitters, Grant Summers, Evan Lewin and Jackson Recht.

But the Bluebirds do return another solid senior class of 11. That starts with several returning starters in center fielder Cooper Schwalbach, catcher Bryce Ziegler, second baseman Chris Bridewell, right fielder Kyle Winkler and pitchers Grady Cramer, Tanner Juett and Steven Grimme. Cramer, Juett and Grimme pitched in the state championship game.

"We've always had the mentality of next man up. We've been fortunate we've had a lot of really talented ball players come through," Baioni said. "The group behind them is just as motivated as the group that left to be successful. This group is no different. That culture that has really taken over the last five or six years has really paid dividends for us because it's no longer where you just show up, roll the balls out and play. Guys understand you have to work hard. They're competing in the weight room in September and October to get ready for the start of the season. We all benefit from it."

Junior lead-off batter Ethan Kavanagh also returns at shortstop for his third season as a starter.  Bridewell and Kavanagh could switch positions if necessary.

When not pitching, Cramer could play in the infield or outfield, Juett could play at first base and Grimme could play an infield position. Winkler and Schwalbach could also pitch. Senior Nolan Turner could pitch or play in either the infield or outfield.

"We definitely lost a lot of velocity with Rom and Dreves leaving but the pitchers this year have good command and they have effective off-speed pitches that they can use at different times in the count," Juett said. "It will work. (Pitching in the state championship game) gave us a taste of everything. It will entice us to get back there again this year."

Highlands hopes to play solid defense again. The Bluebirds outscored opponents, 317-152 for an average of just more than seven runs to between three to four runs per game. In the 5-0 win over Paintsville in the state quarterfinals, Highlands gunned two players down at the plate.

"It will be a really big part of what we do," Ziegler said. "We're going to score a lot of runs each game. Defensively, if we can keep (opponent) off the scoreboard, it will be a lot easier for us. Coach Baioni is really good when it comes to (routine plays). He makes sure that we work on it every day in practice just to make sure we're prepared for games like state and region."

Junior Collin Hollingsworth hoped to give Highlands help as a left-hander. But he will not be able to pitch this year. 

Senior Trent Johnson returns after missing all of last season and could play either third base or catcher. Senior Trey Gabbard played some at first base last year and senior Casey Greene will look to fulfill one of the outfield spots.

Six juniors are also hoping to contribute for the Bluebirds. Mason Schwalbach, Luke Weidner and Brennan Haigis could battle for time at third base and on the mound with Nate Gesenhues playing shortstop or second base. Mason Schwalbach could also catch and Weidner could also play in the outfield.

Six sophomores could also see time for Highlands. Owen Carris, Jason NoeJacob Gulley and Harrison Pawsat could pitch or play in the outfield and Braden Baioni could pitch or play third base. Noe and Braden Baioni are left-handed pitchers. John Barth could play second with Gulley also playing on the left side of the infield or at second.

"The biggest surprise I've seen so far is how each kid has improved," Coach Baioni said. "Nobody has looked at it and said, 'We've won four regional titles and I can just roll so I'm good.' From our best guys to the guys that needed to work at it, everyone has improved. I think kids think it's coach speak when we say you're making decisions difficult, but it's truly how we feel. They continue to grow and get stronger every year. They understand what we want to do and how we want to do it. We have 36 games coming up. We'll roll guys in and out to see who can and who can't do it. We'll let that decide who we roll with in the district and region tournament."

Highlands is slated to open the season Wednesday at Conner. But the game has been moved to Highland Park for a 5 p.m. start. The Bluebirds then travel to Greenwood for one game Friday and two Saturday.

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