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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Bluebirds Lose Shoot-Out in 9th Region Title Game

Highlands Not Headed to State for First Time Since 2014

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands senior Cooper Schwalbach steps into swinging motion in the 9th Region championship on Tuesday.
Solid pitching and defense carried the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team (29-10 overall) to four consecutive 9th Region championships.

But on Tuesday in a sixth consecutive region championship appearance, that was not the case. The offense tried to make up for it, but could not in a 12-9 loss to the 37-1 Beechwood Tigers. Highlands last lost this early in the postseason by a 3-0 score to the Conner Cougars in the 2014 region championship game.

Highlands and Beechwood split the two games during the regular season. The Bluebirds handed the Tigers their lone loss, 7-5 at Great American Ballpark on April 26. The Tigers came back to beat Highlands, 16-5 in five innings on May 3.

Highlands specifically could not contain Beechwood senior and the tournament's most valuable player in senior Devin Johnson. Johnson cracked two home runs going 2-for-4 with five runs batted in and three runs scored.

The top five spots in the Beechwood line-up had at least two hits. The eighth hitter in senior Clay Trusty went 3-for-3 reaching base all four teams. Sophomore pinch runner Cole Stammer scored twice.

"That's a great team over there in Beechwood," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "(Head Coach) Kevin Gray works extremely hard. In a game like this, you can't give them things. They took advantage of their opportunities. They hit one through nine. You can't pitch around all nine of them. In high school, you're not going to play clean all the time."

A mental error led to a 2-0 Beechwood lead after one inning. With two out, Highlands senior pitcher Grady Cramer got senior Ayden Hutton to pop one in the air. But it landed in short right center field between three Highlands players. Johnson smacked one to left center to give the Tigers the lead.

Highlands came back to trim the lead to 2-1 in the third. Junior Ethan Kavanagh reached on an error, took second on a sacrifice bunt and scored when senior Bryce Ziegler hit a sacrifice fly to right.

Overall, the Tigers went 15-for-32 for a .469 clip. Highlands went 10-for-27 for a .370 average. Senior Cooper Schwalbach led the Bluebirds going 2-for-5 with three runs batted in and senior Trey Gabbard added two hits and a run batted in to go with a run scored.

The Bluebirds took the lead with two out in the fourth. Cramer doubled and senior Kyle Winkler ran for him and junior Nate Gesenhues walked. Kavanagh doubled them in to put Highlands up 3-2.

But Beechwood came back to take a 5-3 lead in the fifth. Johnson cranked a three-run blast before Highlands tied the game in the bottom of the fifth. Ziegler walked and sophomore pinch runner Jason Noe moved to third when senior Trent Johnson doubled. Gabbard singled in Noe and junior Mason Schwalbach singled in freshman pinch runner Nick Robinson to tie the game.

The Tigers responded with four in the sixth and added three huge runs in the seventh that proved to be huge. The Bluebirds made things interesting with four runs in the seventh. Gabbard led off with a walk and scored when Kavanagh drew a bases-loaded walk. Cooper Schwalbach then doubled with two out scoring Mason Schwalbach, Gesenhues and Kavanagh. Beechwood ended the game on a fielder's choice.

"We talked about playing with the mentality of never giving up," Baioni said. "The seniors have been remarkable. I'm proud of this group. They'll be successful at anything they do in life."

Highlands graduates 11 seniors. They are Cooper Schwalbach, Ziegler, Chris Bridewell, Winkler, Cramer, Tanner Juett, Steven Grimme, Nolan Turner, Casey Greene, Johnson and Gabbard. Kavanagh, Gesenhues and Mason Schwalbach will be the returning starters.

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