Highland tops NC in bottom of seventh


For the second straight postseason game, the Highland baseball team showed the ability to be clutch in the late innings — with their reward being the program’s fourth district championship.

In topping Newark Catholic 6-5 on Thursday, the Scots trailed 3-1 going into the bottom of the fifth, but erupted for four runs in that frame. That outburst would not be enough, though, as the Green Wave rallied for two in the top of the sixth to tie the contest at five.

It would remain like that until the bottom of the seventh, when Highland struck quickly to end the game.

Kort Sears led off the inning with a hard-hit ball that dropped deep in the outfield for a triple.

“That felt real good,” he said. “I went up with confidence that if I got on base, Hayden (Kline), Z (Zach Church) or Jace (Brooks) would bring me around. I got a pitch to hit and and unleashed on it and got myself to third and put us in a good spot.”

Newark Catholic opted to intentionally walk Church and Kline to load the bases. However, Brooks was ready for the challenge. After an attempt at a squeeze play resulted in a foul ball, Brooks drove the ball to the outfield to drive Sears home and advance Highland to the regional semifinals.

“You’ve got to put something in play,” said Brooks of his mindset. “I tried to bunt first. He threw it at me like he was supposed to, I couldn’t get it down and then I just went for the hit and got it.”

The way the game ended was almost exactly how head coach Don Kline hoped things would go.

“It was funny walking out,” he said. “I talked to (assistant coach) Travis Church and said it’d be nice if Kort hit a home run right now and we just ended this and we didn’t have to coach or think. He hit a triple — he was pretty close — and Catholic did the same thing any good team would do; they load them up and put a little pressure on us. I called the squeeze a pitch too early, I think, and put Jace Brooks in a hole, but he battled. He’s a senior and that’s probably the second or third game-winning hit he’s had this year.”

To get into position to top the Green Wave, Highland had to battle back from a deficit for the second time in a week. Three walks and a wild pitch by Zach Church in the first inning helped Newark Catholic jump out to a quick 2-0 lead before he was able to induce a double play to exit the inning.

While Church would bounce back to pitch three consecutive strong innings after the first, it took until the fourth frame for the Scot bats to wake up. They opened that inning with three consecutive hits by Church, Hayden Kline and Brooks to load the bases; however they only ended up with one run that was brought across on a double play grounder.

Newark Catholic wouldn’t waste any time bringing their lead back up to a two-run margin, getting consecutive two-out hits to make the score 3-1 and cause the Scots to bring Drew Altizer into the game in relief of Church. Altizer would induce a fly ball out to keep it a two-run margin and Highland would then take their first lead of the game.

Gavin Wiggand led off with a single and Rhett Russell bunted for a hit. Jayden Collins followed with a bunt that was misplayed, loading up the bases for Sears, who promptly recorded a two-run single to tie the game.

“I just knew I had to do my job and in games like this, it doesn’t have to be anything special,” he said. “That single, I didn’t hit that very hard, but I put it in a good spot to get through and got my guys around and got myself on base.”

Church would then draw a walk, setting up Hayden Kline, who connected for another two-run single to give the Scots the lead before the Green Wave was able to recover and get out of the inning.

Altizer would strike out the first batter he faced in the top of the sixth, but ran into trouble and was replaced on the mound by Hayden Kline with two on and the lead now at 5-4. Kline would get out of the inning, but not until an error on a ground ball allowed the tying run to cross home plate. However, after Highland went down in order in their half of the inning, he pitched a 1-2-3 seventh to keep the game tied going into the bottom of the inning.

“My mindset is to just trust the guys behind me and throw some strikes,” said Kline after his second-straight high-pressure relief stint. “We have a good pitch-caller, the guy behind the plate, and I’ve got to trust everybody around me. It’s not just me out there. There’s a reason why there’s nine guys out there.”

After his team then finished the game in the bottom of the seventh, Don Kline noted that some early-season MOAC struggles by his team served as a powerful wake-up call.

“I think one of the things this team has really done this year is fight throughout games and they’ve learned to be tough all the way to the end,” he said. “At the beginning of the year, I go back to the Marion Harding loss and Shelby loss. Back to back losses in a tough league. I think those losses taught us lessons that we have to be competitive all the way to the end. When you do, good things happen. The good thing is, I think the guys try to stay within themselves and no one tries to be a hero and everybody just does their part and hands the bat or gives the glove to the next guy and waits for him to do his job.”

And, the coach added, his players have gotten very good at picking each other up when times get tough on the diamond.

“No matter what happens, the thing about a family — a team — is that when times are tough, circle the wagons, the bayonets go out and you fight tougher and that’s what it came down to,” he said. “We made a couple mistakes in that game, some mental and some physical mistakes, but the boys rally around each other and that’s the epitome of team. These guys are so much fun to be around.”

Rob Hamilton can be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 1807. Connect with him on Twitter at @SportsMCS

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