|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands second baseman Rachel Gabbard dives after a ball in Monday's 9th Region quarterfinal game against Beechwood. Gabbard went 3-for-3 with a triple and RBI in the 12-0 Highlands win.|
Both 36th District championship teams took care of business in the 9th Region quarterfinals Monday in games they were expected to win soundly. The Bluebirds (30-6 overall) took care of the St. Henry Crusaders (13-18) by an 8-1 count at University of Medical Center Park and the Ladybirds (23-8) downed the Beechwood Lady Tigers (10-16), 12-0 in five innings at Northern Kentucky University. Both teams played in the first games of the day.
The Bluebirds hit .478 (11-for-23) as a team. But they also took advantage of five Crusader errors. The first four Highlands runs were unearned. Highlands plays on a turf field after playing most of the regular season and district tournament games on grass.
"The (wet) conditions weren't the best. I think that had an effect on (the Crusaders)," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "We did enough to win. That's what we were looking for. The ball rolls a little bit better and a little bit faster. For the most part, you're going to get true hops. You also have to slide early so you don't slide through a base. You make a bunch of adjustments here. But anywhere else, we might not have played because of the rain so we'll take it."
Highlands saw three players record multi-hit games. Jake Whitford reached in all four plate appearances recording a single, double, triple and walk. He scored twice and batted in two. Teammate Todd Ramey went 3-for-4 with a double, run scored and three RBI. Catcher Luke Hennigan went 2-for-3 with a triple and RBI.
"We all have experience with 12 seniors on the team so we're used to being here in the region," Ramey said. "Anything can happen when it comes to these games. It's one and done. We put the ball in play and hoped for the best. We hustled to every base and made them make some plays. Fortunately, they didn't make some of them."
Bluebird pitchers Ricky Raisor and Lou Bunning limited the Crusader chances at the plate. Raisor pitched the first five innings and Bunning threw the sixth and seventh. They combined for seven strikeouts, four hits, two walks and just one earned run.
Highlands struck first in the first inning. Ramey singled and Whitford hit one into shallow left that fell for another single. But the ball bounced past the St. Henry fielders allowing Ramey to score.
The Crusaders scored their lone run in the third. Evan Lyons, Michael Ridilla and pitcher Collin Johnson singled to load the bases. Lyons then scored when Kevin Flaherty grounded out. Raiser then coaxed Dakota Graue to ground out to end the threat.
Highlands went ahead for good in the third at 4-1 with three runs. Murray led off the inning reaching on an error. He then took third when Kreeger laid down a bunt and St. Henry threw the ball into the outfield. Kreeger then stole second before Whitford doubled them home to left field to put Highlands up 3-1. Whitford moved to third when D.J. Mills grounded out before scoing on another St. Henry wild throw.
The Bluebirds added two more in the fourth inning. Ramey singled in Murray and Kreeger.
Whitford scored his second run in the fifth. He walked, moved to second when Mills grounded out, third on a Joseph Martin sacrifice fly and scored when Hennigan singled.
The Bluebirds added another in the sixth. Murray singled and stole second before Ramey singled him in.
Murray and Kreeger set a tone at the top of the lineup. They stole two bases each. Murray scored three times and Kreeger added two.
Highlands plays in the region semifinals on Tuesday at 5 p.m. back at UCMC Field. The opponent will be Boone County.
The Ladybirds saw five players record at least two hits in the five-inning run-ruling. They had 14 hits to four for the Lady Tigers.
Despite that, Head Coach Rob Coffey said Highlands did not play its best. The Ladybirds had two errors and the Lady Tigers had one.
"I think (with) a long weekend and playing at 11 a.m. on a Monday, they were not completely focused when they hit the field," Coffey said. "We had a few silly errors. The warning shot over the bow is that if you play like that the rest of the year, you'll go home. I'm 100 percent confident they'll turn it around. They'll be here (Tuesday) ready to go. They know what it takes."
Junior Bailey Spencer pitched another good game for the Ladybirds. She struck out five and had no walks.
Rachel Gabbard led Highlands going 3-for-3 with a triple and one RBI. Whitney Quillen and Haley Coffey also triple both going 2-for-4. Haley Coffey also had three RBI. Brooke Dill went 2-for-2 with four RBI and Josie Daley also had two hits. Shelby Graybill added a double for the Ladybirds.
Highlands scored four runs in three of their four at-bats. They came in the first, third and fourth innings respectively.
Three outfielders made their first-ever starts in a region game. They are sophomores Taylor Baioni, Kara Fornash and Dill.
"We've tried to stick together and have each others' backs so we can have a good outfield," Dill said. "Communication is very vital. We're always talking in the outfield so we know where we're going and when to back up."
The Ladybirds play again in the region semifinals Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. The opponent will be Conner. Highlands beat the Lady Cougars, 3-0 in the last week of the regular season.