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Saturday, March 27, 2021

2021 Highlands Baseball Preview: high expectations now the norm for HHS program

Bluebirds Read to Take Field after 2020 Season Cancelled

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands senior Vance Moore (left) is a candidate to play center field for the Bluebirds this spring.

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The Highlands Bluebirds baseball team has more than a few great reasons to take the field next week.

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Aside from every spring team not playing last year as a result of the Coronavirus 2019 pandemic, Highlands hopes to reclaim its spot on top of the 9th Region. The Bluebirds had been there four straight years between 2015 and 2018 finishing state runner-up those two seasons.

But that changed two years ago in their sixth straight appearance in the region championship game. The Beechwood Tigers outlasted the Bluebirds, 12-9 at the University of Cincinnati Health Stadium in Florence on their way to the state quarterfinals. Highlands graduated 11 seniors from that 2019 squad including Cooper Schwalbach and Grady Cramer. Then six seniors were not able to play last year in Nate GesenhuesEthan Kavanagh, Mason Schwalbach, Brennan Haggis, Collin Hollingsworth and Luke Weidner.

That's left just senior Jake Gulley as the lone player with significant varsity experience at pitcher and in the outfield. Gulley started eight games two years ago going 5-2 with a 5.30 earned-run average throwing 34.1 innings striking out 41 to go with 31 hits, 26 earned runs, 29 walks and one save. He also had two hits in two plate appearances scoring one run.

The good news is Highlands plays on the new turf infield at Highland Park this season. The Bluebirds have also been part of a system that's been in place since Jeremy Baioni's first season as head coach in 2009.

"It's changed a little bit of our practice plans. It's nice to have guys know what we do and remembering what we do," Baioni said. "We spent a lot less time on bunt coverages because them remember them. We develop from the freshmen year on. They're just excited to go. We just want to get out there and play baseball."

When players move up to varsity, they learn the other 30 to 40 percent of the plays they do not learn on the lower levels. Baioni said the learning curve is a lot shorter since they've been able to practice at Winkler Field as opposed to indoors at the Highlands Field House.

"They've really come a long way in a short period of time," Baioni said. "We have a lot of guys that understand what we do and how we want to do it. We're looking to just keep this thing going."

Highlands lists 10 seniors on the varsity roster for now. Vance Moore is a candidate to play catcher and third base. Dominic Robinson, John Barth, Owen Carris, Jason Noe and Evan Rom could pitch. When not pitching, Rom, Noe, Carris and Robinson could play in the outfield. Barth will also battle for time on the infield.

"We don't really know what to expect this year," Rom said. "It's going to be rotating a lot of guys in just seeing what everyone can do out there to find the best lineup."

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Senior Braden Baioni will play first. The other two seniors in Braden Becker and Isaiah Lampkin hope to play on the infield.

Barth noted the team has depth at every position. Juniors Foster Schuett and Mason Welsch could battle for time at catcher. Schuett also plays outfield and Welsch plays on the infield.

"That's my favorite thing about this program is the fact that guys want to play," Barth said. "Everyone's attitude is pretty solid every single day. As (assistant) Coach (Andy) Raaker was saying, we're having fun running bases. That just shows there's a lot of interest in the program in general."

Eight juniors also battling for time on the mound. They are Connor Schwalbach, Austin Eads, Ryne Wiseman, Jonah Hankins, Abe Hils once basketball season ends, Drew Hack, Jackson Higgason and Parker Cleveland. Cleveland, Higgason and Hils could battle for time in the outfield. Schwalbach, Wiseman and Hankins are listed at first base with Hack listed at third base.

"We haven't truly seen these guys pitch against varsity hitters. There are going to be question marks there in terms of who's going to be able to do it," Coach Baioni said. "The beauty of that is we have 36 games to figure that out. We just finished talking to them about the opportunities they're going to get to go out there and show what they can do. We play a very tough schedule. We have guys from the sophomore through senior classes that we're going to run out there, let them compete and see who wins the spots to get ready for the region tournament."

Three juniors round out the roster. They are Jack Schneider at third base, Nick Robinson on the infield and Camden McAtee in the oufield.

Highlands opens the season Monday at Conner. Game time is 5 p.m.

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