It wasn’t easy, but the Highland Scots were able to reach their first district championship game in baseball since the team advanced all the way to the Final Four in 2006.
Competing at home on Tuesday, Highland overcame a 3-0 deficit to edge Bishop Hartley by a 4-3 margin in the district semis to advance.
“I’m real proud of the guys’ resiliency,” said head coach Don Kline. “They won’t go away at the end of the day. They play for each other. We’re a team without stars. When you have a team where you don’t know who will be the star at the end of the night, it’s a lot of fun.”
Early in the game, it didn’t look like it’d be Highland’s day. After starter Wyatt Groves retired the Hawks in order in the top of the first, the team got off to a good start offensively. Rider Minnick singled and Randy Cain doubled to put runners on second and third with nobody out. However, Hartley pitcher Emmett Gillies would then pick up three straight outs without allowing either runner to cross home plate.
“That’s frustrating,” said Kline. “When you’re a coach, you want to project confidence, but to have second and third with no outs against one of the best pitchers in the Central District and you don’t score…”
Hartley then responded with three two-out runs in the second inning. With runners on first and second, Lukas Graham brought in one run with a single and Alex Ramicone scored another with a ground rule double. A third run would cross on a wild pitch before the Scots could get out of the inning.
From there, the game was dominated by Gillies and Groves until the bottom of the fourth. Luke Cain opened the inning with a single for the Scots and took second on a wild pitch. Zach Pinkerton got a hit to put runners on the corners and, after a walk to Jon Jensen, K.J. Johnson and Brock Church had back-to-back RBI singles to bring their team within a 3-2 count.
“It felt good putting one in play,” Johnson said of his hit, which got Highland on the board. “It’s not the most solid hit I’ve had before, but if we put it in play, we’ll score runs.”
After Highland pitched around a Hartley single in the fifth, they struck for two more in their half of the inning. Randy Cain led off with a single and took second on a wild pitch. Dom Carter then legged out a ground ball and Cain took advantage of an error on the throw to first to tie the game. Another wild pitch put pinch runner Layton Shaffer on third base, where he would score on a sacrifice fly by Pinkerton to give Highland their first lead of the day.
From there, relief pitcher Blake Jodrey, who entered in the fifth inning, was able to take Highland the rest of the way, although it wasn’t a completely smooth ride. In the seventh, the Hawks were able to put runners on second and third with two outs, but weren’t able to get back on the scoreboard, allowing the Scots to preserve their lead and claim the win.
Kline noted that he has a number of good pitchers to utilize in these high-pressure games, citing Groves, Jodrey, Logan Shaffer as three starters who’ve consistently delivered all season. That trio has combined for 20 wins on the year.
“They’re a good mix together,” he said. “They’ve done a fantastic job. We have good pitchers who can’t get on the mound because those guys are hogs.”
For his part, Jodrey was happy to know his team feels it can rely on him in tough situations.
“Going through this year, I learned to keep my cool because the guys always have my back,” he said. “It feels great to be one of the guys the coaches count on and my team can count on.”
After winning a pair of hard-fought contests to reach the district finals, Kline is hoping those experiences can give his team a confidence boost in their bid to advance to regionals.
“It’s one of those things where perception equals reality,” he said. “If you think you’re good, then you are. This does give them confidence. I didn’t see them panic. It’s one of those things where they start to believe.”