Big hits, kicks and jumps
This spring, there were two distinctly different teams that took the field for Highland Bulldogs baseball team.
In the season’s first half, HHS struggled to score runs, play defense, and get solid pitching.
Thanks to a late-season winning surge, the Bulldogs turned a poor start into a very strong finish that ended with a 23-14 mark and just three wins short of the ISHA Class 3A state tournament.
“A couple of surprises to me were, one, I did not expect the slow start (that we had),” Highland coach Joel Hawkins said. “Then, what we saw the last 15 games of the year was more like how expected these guys to perform, but it made it a really good challenge and all of the things that happened in the first 20 games really set up what happened in the last 15 games.”
The opening half of the season was trying for HHS, which at one point was just 10-10 in late April.
“We were not good the first 20 games defensively and pitching-wise we were erratic,” Hawkins said. “I was more concerned with how we were playing defense because we were throwing the ball around and weren’t going to the right spots and a lot of stuff that was normal for us (in the field) we weren’t getting it done.”
That all changed starting the weekend of May 3 when Highland faced Chatham-Glenwood, Edwardsville, and Teutopolis in a tournament at District 7 Sports Complex in Edwardsville.
Highland knocked off Chatham Glenwood 2-1, lost to Edwardsville 6-0, and blanked Teutopolis 5-0.
“I thought that weekend was the turning point (of the season) because now we’re starting not to allow runs and the next Monday we allowed just one run against Civic Memorial,” Hawkins said.
“We really began to click from a standpoint of thinking that not allowing the other team to score might be pretty important.”
The Bulldogs pitching also settled down as junior righthander Kolby Frey and senior lefty Payne Waldman gave strong quality starts and kept opposing hitters off the base paths.
“We didn’t have Kobly at the beginning when he was hurt and he ends up going 6-1 and every game we threw him in he was effective,” Hawkins said. “Payne struggled early in the year and he turned it around, and once he and Kolby got rolling, that really got the ball rolling for us.”
Senior relievers Michael Barth, Griffin Frahm, and Riley Field along with junior Tyler Werner helped the Bulldogs stay in and close games during the spring.
On offense, senior shortstop Jacob Willis was the catalyst with a .388 average, 19 RBIs and 23 stolen bases.
“Offensively, there’s no question, Jacob Willis was our best offensive player and he was our shortstop and he made some eye-popping plays there,” Hawkins said.
Willis was a first team all-Mississippi Valley Conference selection this spring.
Other top hitters for the Bulldogs included junior outfielder Carter Wiegman (.295), Frey (.287), junior infielder Jack Korte (.284) senior first baseman Ross Spies (.273), and steady senior pinch hitter Ryan Hacke (.260).
HHS finished the regular season at 20-13 and then defeated Breese Central on May 20, Triad on May 23 (7-2), and Mascoutah (9-5) on May 25 to win the Class 3A Triad regional championship.
The Mascoutah win was a major accomplishment for the Bulldogs, who lost twice to the highly-ranked Indians in the regular season.
“I kept telling them (the players) you have no idea what you just did,” Hawkins said. “That was a great team they beat that day and if you could have bottled what they did that day and put that together each time … but that’s not how baseball works.”
Highland had its season stopped four days later in the Class 3A sectional championship at Salem as the Bulldogs lost a 2-1 walk-off heartbreaker to Carbondale in the eighth inning on James Baltz’s double to left.
Needless to say, Hawkins was pleased with how the team turned its season around.
“There’s a lot of things that you can control about baseball and the one thing I liked about those kids is that they fought and fought,” Hawkins said. “It was a together experience for them and it was really neat to see them grow as a team.”