By G. Michael Graham
To the knowledge of veteran Head Coach Jeremy Baioni and Director of Athletics Kevin Nieporte, senior Ethan Kavanagh holds a huge distinction in program history.
Kavanagh is the first position player to sign at a Power Five NCAA Conference school when he signed to play for the University of Kentucky Wildcats in March. The Bluebirds have had pitchers commit to that level with 2018 graduate Drew Rom being the most recent. Rom committed to the University of Michigan before signing to play minor league baseball in the Baltimore Orioles organization.
Kavanagh made the starting line-up as a freshman. He played second base most of that season in 2017 before moving to shortstop as a sophomore and junior. Kavanagh hit .495 last season with four home runs, 30 runs batted in, 46 runs scored and 12 stolen bases last year.
"Ethan's a competitor and it's not just on the baseball field. I tell stories about college coaches, especially at UK, saying, 'We want to see you get faster. We want to see you get stronger," Kavanagh said. "He shaves off two-tenths of a second off his (60-yard dash) time and gains 14 pounds of muscle. He's had teachers say, 'I think you can do better. You need to put in the work' and his ACT score jumps. That's how he is. You can never doubt a kid like that because they've shown in all facets in life they can be successful and they're going to do whatever it takes to be successful. He's just a special kid who happens to be really talented in baseball."
Kavanagh admits to missing the season as much as anyone does. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association cancelled all spring sports last week as a result of Coronavirus 2019 after Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announced a closure of traditional schooling the rest of the year.
But Kavanagh has continued to prepare to play shortstop at UK. He's been working out at his house or friends’ houses. The KHSAA prohibits players from working out on school grounds during this dead period.
"It is really unfortunate because I really know Lexington is a great place and I really want to go to college. My number one thing was to get drafted out of high school," Kavanagh said. "Not having a high school season kind of hurt that a little bit. But I can bounce back stronger. I feel for my other teammates and seniors. This is the last time they were going to be able to play. I'm really sad about my senior season, but I have a lot of other seasons ahead of me. But a lot of these others don't. That's where my heart lies."
Kavanagh is joining a Southeastern Conference program on the rise under Head Coach Nick Mingione. The Wildcats qualified for the first Super Region in 2017 before losing to Louisville and finished in the Top 10 of every major college poll. That team finished a program-best 43-23.
Kentucky started 2020 at 11-6. The Wildcats won six in a row before Coronavirus 2019 forced a cancellation of the season.
"It's amazing really. I have always looked forward to it," Kavanagh said. "I remember when I started to get recruited by UK. That was really insane because I always thought of myself as going here."
Kavanagh said he wants to improve his strength and become a more versatile middle infielder. He'd also like to help the Wildcats take that next step and go to Omaha for the College World Series.
The SEC has seen a number of teams win it all in recent years. The Vanderbilt Commodores won it last year and in 2019 with the University of Florida winning it in 2017. The South Carolina Gamecocks won back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2010. Louisiana State won its last of six crowns in 2009.
"Our recruiting class for 2020 is amazing. We're one of the top recruiting classes in the nation," Kavanagh said. "As the new upcoming players come in, I think we'll have a chance to compete with the big dogs. I think we'll just have to play our hearts out and be competitive against those big teams at the right time and we'll be able to (go far)."
Kavanagh currently takes three Advanced Placement classes and has taken six in his time at Highlands. His unweighted grade-point average is around 3.8 on a 4.0 scale. AP classes are calculated on a 5.0 scale and advanced classes run on a 4.5 scale.
"I think it prepares you for the next step into college," Kavanagh said. "I think that Highlands High School has done a really good job at making me a better person in the classroom as well."
Kavanagh is not fond of the non-traditional online education Highlands and other schools in Kentucky went to starting March 16. But he's dealing with it.
"I think it's cool to do homework online. I think it helps people," Kavanagh said. "It's a drag being a senior now looking forward to graduation. I bet it's tough for a lot of kids. In my opinion, I just don't like it at all."
Highlands won the 9th Region title his freshman and sophomore year in a run of four straight crowns. The Bluebirds have been to six straight region championship games. Beechwood beat Highlands in the region championship last year ending that run. The Bluebirds finished state runner-up in 2018.