|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior Ricky Raisor fires a pitch in last year's 9th Region championship game against Conner. Raisor is one of 13 pitchers that give the Bluebirds depth this season.|
That feeling was a second loss in three years in the 9th Region championship game for the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team. The Conner Cougars scored three unearned runs in the bottom of the sixth to beat Highlands, 3-0 in that game. The Bluebirds also lost 3-1 to Newport Central Catholic in the region championship in 2012.
"We have had the best off-season in Highlands baseball history and a lot of that has to do with the determination and motivation of this team," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "The administration in Fort Thomas has provided us with top-notch facilities and our coaches and players have taken advantage of that. We spent all November, December and January in the new weight room really working hard. We utilized indoor cages and had 50 kids showing up every day. All three levels are determined to work as hard as possible on winning a regional championship at all three levels."
Highlands graduated five seniors from that team that finished 22-18, captured a third straight 36th District championship before beating Beechwood then Dixie Heights in region play at University of Cincinnati Medical Center Park to earn a shot at that elusive region crown. The Bluebirds last won a region title in 1997.
"Everybody knows how it feels going to the title game," said Todd Ramey, Highlands senior catcher, first baseman and third baseman. "The disappointment is still in everybody's heads so we're working hard to get back there. Once we're back there, we're prepared to win the game."
Those five seniors were infielder/outfielder Mitch Gesenhues, outfielder Brandon Hergott and infielder/pitchers Joey Cochran, Ben Vermeil and Evan Allen. But the majority of the team returns with 12 seniors, eight juniors and a sophomore on the varsity level. The Bluebird freshmen and junior varsity teams captured the region tournament championships.
The coaching staff had to make cuts with so many players coming out. The Bluebirds saw 82 players in grades 8-12 try out for the teams compared to 54 when Baioni took over in 2009.
"Making cuts is the toughest thing I do every year without a doubt," Baioni said. "We want to keep every kid that wants to be a Highlands baseball player, but that's not realistic. I can't tell you how much respect I have for each and every one of those kids that tried out this year and in years past. They all fought hard for their chance to be a part of our program."
The Bluebirds carry a huge asset into the season in pitching depth. That often leads to state championships in addition to region championships. They have 13 players listed as pitchers led by seniors Mitch Jones, Joseph Martin, Lou Bunning and junior Ricky Raisor. Jones is committed to play baseball at Kentucky Wesleyan and Bunning will play football at Lindsey Wilson College.
"Honestly, I do think we have the best pitching staff in the 9th Region," Jones said. "I can't speak for anyone else int eh state, but I do like our odds. We have a lot of guys who can throw in the low 80s (miles per hour). There are a lot of teams who don't even have one guy who can throw in the 80s."
Jones said the staff needs to stay healthy. The pitchers have been working on eyesight and location with freshmen head coach Derrik Moeves. The other listed pitchers are seniors Alex Veneman, Kenny Ball, Jacob Noe, Grayson Heck, juniors Conner Kreeger, Trent Casebolt, John Penrod, Mark Walkenhorst and sophomore Ethan Doty.
"They understand that they can sacrifice a little bit of velocity to locate a pitch and be even more effective," Baioni said. "They also understand that they can 'empty the tank' when they are on the mound and have every bit of confidence that there are guys behind them that can finish the job. In years past, we may have extended a pitcher or he may have attempted to find ways to save a little bit because we lacked pitching depth. This year, we think we'll have enough arms to piece a game together with two or three quality pitchers every day."
When not pitching, Jones, Veneman, Noe, Penrod, Walkenhorst and Kreeger will be in the outfield. Martin will be at first or third when not pitching and Doty could be behind the plate. Bunning could find himself at first or in the outfield when not on the mound and Ball could be catching or somewhere else on the infield. Heck could also be somewhere in the infield.
Three other seniors also return in outfielder Brady Murray, shortstop/second baseman Jake Whitford and first and third baseman DJ Mills. Junior Austin Beal will battle for an outfield spot with junior Hunter Henschen battling for time at first base and junior Austin Mayhew looking for time at shortstop and second base.
The Bluebirds hit the ball well last year scoring 210 runs while yielding 171. That run total was good for fifth in the region. Baioni said Highlands has been working on situational hitting this year and cutting down on strikeouts. For instance, with two outs, he wants the players to shorten their swings and put the ball in play on the ground.
The Bluebirds held a midnight madness for the start of baseball practices this year. It took place at the Next Level Academy in Wilder.
"We have thought about Midnight Madness to open the season for years," Baioni said. "The probelm has always been the lack of facilities and the weather rarely cooperates that early. We had over 100 fans and we were able to showcase our guys in a manner that many aren't used to seeing. It's always fun when the guys get to showcase their athletic ability and hard work in that type of setting. We wanted to show everyone how much fun we had while working hard."
Highlands opens the season Monday against Beechwood. Game time is 5 p.m.