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Thursday, March 25, 2021

2021 Highlands Bluebirds Softball Preview

Bluebirds Return Lots of Experience Despite Missing Last Year

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. The Highlands softball players gather around Head Coach Milt Horner during a Tuesday practice. The season starts at Lloyd Memorial on Monday.

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Senior Brianna Tharps said it was an exciting moment to take the field against another team for the first time in almost 22 months on Monday in a scrimmage at Ryle.

The Highlands Bluebirds softball team had not played in a sanctioned game or scrimmage since May 29, 2019 at Beechwood in the 9th Region semifinals. The Bluebirds lost a heartbreaking 4-3 decision in the bottom of the seventh against Dixie Heights.
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Highlands had high aspirations going into 2020 with the graduation of just six-year starter Rachel Gabbard and Michaela Brown from that 2019 team that finished 16-11 overall winning a second consecutive 36th District Tournament championship, 11-1 in five innings over Dayton.

But the Coronavirus 2019 pandemic wound up cancelling the season, which would have marked the first season as head coach for longtime assistant Milt Horner. Outfielders Kendall Murray, Abby Rust along with multi-position players Brittney Johnson, Taylar Lorenzen and Kerigan Bailey did not get to play their senior seasons. Lorenzen is playing infield at Muskingum University in New Concord (Ohio) located near Zanesville. Muskingum is an NCAA Division III school in the Ohio Athletic Conference.

But Highlands still welcomes back a lot of experience as eight of the 16 players on the varsity roster have some varsity experience. That starts at the top of the line-up with Tharps at third base, catcher or outfield then senior outfielder Caroline Class and fourth-year starting shortstop or outfielder Anna Greenwell. The trio stole a combined 40 bases in 2019 with Greenwell leading the way with 20 tying Rust for the team lead.

"I don't know that we'll quite get there this year because Abby would have probably stolen 50 on her own. Caroline walked to lead off the (Ryle scrimmage)," Horner said. "We executed a perfect bunt-and-run. Caroline got to third and Bri got to first. We expect to be doing that a lot. The top three in the line-up are going to be running like crazy. A couple of the other girls are fast enough to steal some bases. But most of it will be from the top."

Greenwell went 34-of-83 in 2019 for a .410 batting average to go with a home run, seven doubles, seven triples. 20 runs batted in and 36 runs scored. Class went 30-for-77 for a .389 average with six doubles, 23 RBI and 21 runs scored.

The other five returning players with varsity experience are junior Gracie Schlosser at first base, second base and pitcher, sophomore Carly Cramer at pitcher, first, second and third base, Kennedy Baioni at pitcher, first base and outfield and freshmen Bailey Markus at outfield and pitcher along with Michelle Barth at first base, third base and catcher.

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Schlosser is in her fourth year as a pitcher on varsity and Baioni has two seasons of varsity experience pitching. Schlosser finished 9-5 in 2019 and Baioni 7-6. Cramer made one appearance on the mound in 2019. Those three along with Markus and seventh grader Kaitlyn Dixon could see action on the mound this year.

Horner likes the combination of power and speed on the team. Barth and Baioni homered in the scrimmage against Ryle. He's also seen Cramer and Tharps hit them in practice. Despite the Coronavirus obstacles, Horner said the team gathered 50 times from the end of July until the season officially started.

"Anything can happen in softball. The pitcher can have a bad day. But if we're not fighting for the regional title, I think we should be disappointed," Horner said. "We ought to be doing that. Our team motto is #RoadToLex. These girls have worked really hard. I give a lot of credit to the Fort Thomas School Administrators. They let us do some things in the fall. Then we were allowed to start (conditioning) on Jan. 11 when other schools were not."

The team has three seniors this year. The other one is infielder Julianna Shonkwiler. Tharps listed some keys for the upperclassmen providing leadership.

"With younger girls, we have to make sure we're not yelling and we're not up in their face," Tharps said. "We have to make sure we're calm about it. But we still have to make sure we get to the point and it gets fixed."

Another junior in Elanor Todd also has varsity experience. She'll play at first or third base. Juniors Hailey Parks and Caitlin Shonkwiler will battle for time at second base or in the outfield.

Four seventh graders round out the roster. Horner said Payton Brown will start in right field. She could also play second or third base. Dixon could also see action at first base or second base. Camryn Markus will battle for time in the outfield or at second base with Morgan Pompilio fighting for time at first base, second base or in the outfield.

Class said Ryle did not hit many balls to the outfield. The Lady Raiders had no extra-base hits in the scrimmage Monday.

"In the outfield, it's our communication. That makes all the difference," Class said. "We all have tons of speed out there. We just have to talk to each other and we can over those gaps pretty well."

The stands at Winkler Field faced away from the field Tuesday in preparation for home games adhering to Coronavirus 2019 precautions. Horner said the city cleared out left and right field. Benches will be placed down right field where people can sit.

"We hope to be able to spread out to make that happen. We do have some options," Horner said. "We probably have a better seating arrangement than any other field because of all the concrete we do have. We'll do the best we can and we're somewhat hopeful that maybe the KHSAA will relax some restrictions the second half of the season. Obviously, we don't control that."

The regular season starts March 29 at Lloyd Memorial. Game time is 5 p.m.

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