|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands first baseman Mark Walkenhorst (right) throws to pitcher Ricky Raisor (left) to record an out in the second inning in the 9th Region quarterfinal win over Covington Catholic. Highlands won 7-0.|
The Covington Catholic Colonels.
They happened to draw each other in the 9th Region quarterfinals Monday at University of Cincinnati Health Stadium. The Bluebirds (21-17 overall) took advantage of three early Colonel errors to build a nice lead and cruised to a 7-0 blanking.
"It's always easier to work when you're ahead," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "It takes the pressure off a little bit. There's not that one error that can impact the game and guys play a little more relaxed."
The two teams met three times during the regular season with the Bluebirds winning twice. The Colonels came to Fort Thomas and captured an 8-3 victory on April 13. But Highlands came back to win 4-1 in Park Hills on May 13 and 9-2 on May 18.
Highlands has gone 8-3 in the 9th Region tournament since 2012 including the championship last year on its way to a state runner-up finish. During that same time, CovCath (25-11) has an impressive 139-46 record with three 35th District championships including 33-win seasons in 2012 and 2014. But the Colonels have just one region tournament win during that same time frame, which was a 3-0 quarterfinal win over St. Henry in 2014.
Highlands and CovCath had not met in the baseball postseason since 2002. The Colonels blanked the Bluebirds, 8-0 in the 9th Region championship that year on their way to the state championship.
The Bluebirds received a stellar pitching game from Ricky Raisor (6-3). He kept the Colonels hitless on 68 pitches in six innings with just two runners reaching. One came on the lone Highlands error in the third inning and the other came on a walk in the sixth inning.
Highlands junior Ethan Doty pitched the seventh inning so Raisor can pitch Thursday if the Bluebirds make it back to the region championship. Players can't pitch for three days if they throw 76 or more pitches during one game. Raisor struck out three.
"I really didn't think too much about the no-hitter honestly," Raisor said. "I went out there. I knew I had to pump strikes and stay efficient so I can come back Thursday. I just went out there, cleared my mind and threw strikes. Everything was working well."
Designated Hitter Will Heppler broke up the no-hitter to lead off the seventh. He reached second with one out after Doty hit Cam Pitzer with a pitch. After a Nick Stegman ground out moved both runners up, Doty preserved the shutout by coaxing Alex Kennedy into grounding out to Highlands third baseman Sam Hennigan.
The Bluebird offense put together eight hits. Trey Bowden and Austin Mayhew led the way with two hits each. Bradley Greene and Hennigan scored two runs each.
"We've been working all year on having a plan at the plate," Baioni said. "We tell them to have a plan then do your best to execute that plan.We did a great job of that (Monday). They didn't swing at a ton of bad pitches. I was proud of them for that."
The Colonels started sophomore AJ Mayer on the mound despite limited varsity experience and the Bluebirds tagged him for four unearned runs off three CovCath errors. Pitzer pitched the other four innings.
Kyle Rust reached on a CovCath error with one out and stole second before moving to third on a wild pitch. Conner Kreeger then grounded out to deep short allowing Rust to score to give Highlands a 1-0 lead. With two out, Mark Walkenhorst walked and moved to second when Mayhew singled. Rom then singled Walkenhorst home.
The Bluebirds made it 4-0 with two more in the second inning. The Colonels committed consecutive two-base errors to start the inning. The first one put Greene at second and the second let him score and Hennigan ended up at second. Bowden bunted Hennigan to third before Hennigan scored on a wild pitch.
"Austin Mayhew talked to us before the game, pumped us up and got us excited to play," Bowden said. "We put it on them. It's nice. We're always relaxed throughout the game. We prepared all season for this game. It felt like we were ready to go and we proved that."
Highlands tagged on two more runs in the fourth inning. Greene walked and Hennigan singled him to second before Bowden singled home Greene.
A wild play allowed Hennigan to score. Bowden took off for second when Pitzer tried to pick him off first. But Bowden collided with Stegman at second after Langguth tagged him out allowing Hennigan to score even though veteran CovCath Head Coach Bill Krumpelbeck argued for an interference call.
The last Bluebird run came in the fifth inning. Walkenhorst singled and took second on a passed ball. Mayhew singled Walkenhorst to third before pinch-hitter Trent Casebolt singled him home.
Highlands is making its fourth region semifinal appearance in the last five seasons Tuesday back at UC Health Stadium. The Bluebirds take on the 34th District champion St. Henry Crusaders (17-11) at 7:30 p.m.
R H E
Covington Catholic (25-11) 000 000 0 0 1 3
Highlands (21-17) 220 210 x 7 8 1
Highlands Pitching Line:
Ricky Raisor (6-3) - 6 IP, three strikeouts, no hits, one walk.
Ethan Doty - 1 IP, one strikeout, no walks, one hit.
Highlands leading hitters:
Trey Bowden, 2-for-3
Austin Mayhew, 2-for-3
9th Region Softball Tournament Schedule:
Monday, May 30:
Quarterfinals at UCH Ball Park in Florence:
Conner 8, Dixie Heights 2
Beechwood 7, Newport Central Catholic 1
St. Henry 4, Ryle 3
Highlands 7, Covington Catholic 0
Tuesday, May 31:
Semifinals at UCH Ball Park in Florence:
Conner (27-8) vs. Beechwood (31-7), 5 p.m.
St. Henry (17-11) vs. Highlands (21-17), 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, June 2:
Championship at UCH Ball Park in Florence:
Tuesday winners, 7 p.m.