There may not have been major league-caliber talent like Tampa Rays starter Jake Odorizzi, but there have been many good teams and quality players who have taken the field donning Highland Bulldogs jerseys since the magical 2008 state-championship season.
But no Highland team since has been able to get over the hump and score a regional title since that state run — until Monday that is.
The current Bulldogs squad put that six-year dry spell to rest with an emphatic 8-1 drubbing of Mississippi Valley Conference foe Jerseyville to capture the Class 3A Jerseyville Regional crown at Ken Schell Field.
“It’s been quite a while,” said long-time Highland coach Joel Hawkins, who directed the program to its eighth regional title since he took over the reins in the spring of 1992. “We’ve had some terrific teams and some terrific players that haven’t been able to get past this regional… Today, we got it.”
The Bulldogs brought home the regional hardware by playing some of their best baseball since they fired out of the gate on a 9-0 tear and won 15 of their first 16 games.
Highland routed Civic Memorial, another MVC opponent, 9-3 in the regional semifinal on Wednesday of last week.
Against both the Eagles and Panthers, the Bulldogs have gotten strong, steady pitching, rock-solid defense and timely, clutch hitting.
“Us seniors have been on some great teams that just couldn’t pull through. It is a great accomplishment so far but we have our minds set on the next round and coach has us set on playing game by game; not thinking too far ahead,” said Highland senior catcher Matt Augustin, who went 2-for-3 with one stolen base, two RBIs and one run scored in the semifinal win and slugged a double and scored a run in the title contest. “We are playing like we did at the beginning of the season —with no errors and hitting the ball hard, making them make plays. Our pitching has been great, not giving up a lot of walks and letting our defense do what it is capable of.
“The end of the regular season was rough, but we lost to some great teams that got us ready for the teams we would meet in the playoffs.”
Highland advanced to face another MVC combatant in Waterloo (24-12) on Wednesday night (after press time) in the second semifinal of the Salem Sectional. Waterloo edged Freeburg 5-3 to win the Freeburg Regional.
The first semifinal pitted Mount Vernon against Effingham.
HHS 8, Jerseyville 1
The third time was still not a charm for the Jerseyville Panthers, who ended their season at 18-16 after losing all three times to Highland this year. But after pulling out a pair of one-run victories late in the regular season by scores of 5-4 and 4-3, the Bulldogs did not need any seventh-inning heroics in this one, due in large part to the right arm of senior ace Grant Geppert.
“The first two times, we were lucky. This time, it was a lot more sound,” Hawkins said
Geppert declawed the Panthers, going the distance and conceding just one earned run, three hits and two walks. The senor right-hander punched out nine Jersey batters to lift his season record to 8-3 and dip his ERA to 1.44.
After allowing a first-inning solo home run to Panther Crick Kimble, Geppert quickly developed amnesia. After surrendering a two-out single to Hunter Bryant in the second, the Bulldogs’ ace retired 16 of the final 18 batters he faced.
Geppert’s sterling start in the title game was a strong bounce back after an uneasy outing against CM in the regional semifinal where he was lifted from the game after only 3 2/3 innings after giving up three runs (one earned) on four hits and five walks. He did strike out four.
“He was much better today,” Hawkins said of Geppert. “Maybe today was because of (last) Wednesday. You get on a horse, and then you get on it again and relax a little bit, because you’ve been on it before. He was much more in command today. He knew his situations a lot better. Kimble hit the daylights out of that ball in the first; maybe that woke him up a little bit.”
Highland’s offense was charged by senior Cody Bentlage and Tyler Kimmle, and juniors Sam Greene, Will Greenwald and Andrew Winning, who all raked two hits apiece.
Bentlage also led the way with a game-high three runs batted in.
But Geppert kept the Panthers in check while Highland’s offense did not capitalize enough early on its chances. The Bulldogs had six hits in the first three innings off Jersey starter Jake Varble, but HHS ended up stranding seven base runners in the first three innings, including leaving the bases loaded twice.
However, the Bulldogs got all the runs they would really need with a two-run top of the second. Greenwald and Bentlage each supplied two-out RBI singles. Greenwald’s base hit knocked in Greene (leadoff single), and Bentlage’s single chased home Greenwald to give Highland a 2-1.
The Bulldogs would not relinquish their advantage.
The score remained that way until the top of the fifth when Highland tacked on a key insurance run on Greene’s two-out RBI single down the left field line to score Augustin, who coaxed a two-out walk, stole second and moved over to third on a wild pitch.
The Bulldogs pushed across three runs in the sixth off reliever Kimble on an error, a run-scoring single from Winning and a sacrifice fly by junior Jordan Smith.
Highland put the game out of reach with a pair of runs in the seventh as Bentlage delivered a two-run single to right field off Jerseyville’s third pitcher, Will Mortland.
HHS 9, Civic Memorial 3.
The Bulldogs’ big use of small ball grounded the Eagles early and ultimately led to their demise.
Highland used nine stolen bases, including thieving home plate twice, and four sacrifices to end CM’s season.
Augustin and Welz led HHS with two hits apiece.
The Bulldogs raced out of the gate with a three-run first frame that went a long way to deciding the outcome of the game. Highland scored its three tallies with the benefit of just one hit.
“It was huge,” Hawkins said. “The first inning of these playoff games is everything. I bet you more games are won in the first than in the seventh inning. We talked about winning the first inning. You’ve got to get the first inning, and tonight we were lucky enough to get it.”
The three runs came with a lot of help from CM. Greenwald was hit by a pitch to lead off. Next, Bentlage reached on an error while laying down a bunt and Geppert was granted a free pass to load the bases.
Winning then hit a sacrifice fly to bring Greenwald home for the first run of the game while Bentlage tagged and ran over to third. Bentlage and Geppert then performed a successful delayed double steal to make it 2-0. Jordan Smith got the lone hit of the inning, poking a single through the right side to score Geppert scored for a three-run advantage.
After CM got two runs back in the top of the second on Cory Price’s one-out double down the third-base line and pitcher Zac Cato’s RBI ground out, Highland answered with three runs in the bottom half to extend its lead to 6-2.
The Bulldogs scored on a balk, an RBI single by Geppert, and a steal of home by Seth Luitjohan.
The Eagles picked up a single tally in the fourth on Tyler Andrus’ two-out RBI single to cut the deficit to 6-3.
But after CM left two runners stranded, Highland put the game away in the bottom of the fifth with its third three-run at-bat of the game.
The trio of runs crossed home plate on a two-run single by Augustin to score Geppert (leadoff walk) and Winning (single), and a run-scoring single from Greene to plate Augustin to complete the game’s scoring at 9-3.
Geppert departed after walking his final two batters to load the bases with two outs in the fourth and HHS’ lead at 6-3.
Hawkins first summoned senior left-hander Pete Baumgartner, who struck out Caleb Buhs on three pitches to end the threat. The lefty then danced out of danger after yielding two hits and a walk.
Baumgartner struck out Brandon Carpenter to to put another zero on the board for Highland before giving way to Kimmle, who was by far the most dominant Highland hurler on the day.
Kimmle breezed through two perfect innings to close the game, fanning four of the six batters he faced.