The Highland baseball Bulldogs rolled to three more wins in as many days to nudge their overall winning streak to four games.
First on Wednesday of last week, Highland traveled to Jerseyville and rallied for two runs in the seventh inning to score a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Panthers.
The next day, HHS traveled to Waterloo and won the battle of the Bulldogs by a 4-1 count.
Those two wins allowed Highland to improve to 6-4 and win a share of the parity-heavy Mississippi Valley Conference along with Waterloo (19-8 overall, 6-4 MVC) and Civic Memorial (17-14, 6-4).
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Longtime Waterloo High coach Mark Vogel can’t remember the last time he’s experienced a MVC baseball race like the logjam staged by the league’s clubs this spring.
“We joined the conference in 1998, and I’ve not seen this kind of parity,” Vogel said of the conferences wild and wacky spring. “Usually there’s been some separation between teams as the year’s gone on, but not this year. There were some comebacks in games that made it a little more improbable. Nobody was really, truly outstanding. There usually has been a team that had that stud pitcher and was just a quality team and this year nobody really stood out. Obviously that shows in the final records.”
Mascoutah (18-14) and Jerseyville (18-12) both finished just one win back with an even 5-5 league mark.
“We weren’t too far off from a four-way tie,” said Vogel, and his point is well taken.
Triad, which fields an extremely young squad, won its last two MVC games but still brought up the rear in sixth place at 2-8 in the conference play.
Highland began the season 9-0 and won 15 of its first 16 games, then lost eight of nine before rebounding with a four-game win streak that started with the three MVC victories over Triad, Jerseyville and Waterloo, and was capped off last Thursday with a 5-3 home triumph over non-conference foe Salem.
That fourth win in a row allowed the HHS Bulldogs to reach the 20-win plateau at 20-9.
Highland received the No. 2 seed for next week’s Class 3A Jerseyville Regional. The Bulldogs are scheduled to face third-seeded Civic Memorial at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 27 in the regional’s second semifinal.
The first semifinal at 4 p.m. pits top-seeded Jerseyville against Monday’s quarterfinal/play-in winner between No. 4 Alton Marquette and No. 5 Triad.
The two semifinal winners will then meet for the regional championship at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 30.
“Our team has been playing great defense and swinging the bats better,” said Highland senior Grant Geppert, the team’s ace pitcher and first baseman. “I feel like our team is back to where we need to be. Our team has great fight and I will be very confident going into regionals. I love our chances in taking the regional this year.”
Mascoutah is the No. 3 seed at the 3A Freeburg Regional behind top-seeded Freeburg and No. 2 seed Waterloo.
Vogel said a year like this could produce an MVC squad capable of making a deep run in the playoffs.
“You’re always seeing somebody’s No. 1 and 2, and it always has a little bit of an extra feel to it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that playing in this conference goes a long way to preparing all of us for playoff time. You never really got a break because we were all so even.
“We just picked the wrong time to go into a little bit of a hitting slump.”
One Waterloo player not in a hitting slump is junior slugger Tyler McAlister, headed to Missouri State on a pitching scholarship. McAlister is among the top hitters in the St. Louis area with a .494 average that includes six doubles, seven home runs and 33 RBIs. Waterloo outfielder Ryan Aycock is hitting .451 with 18 RBIs.
Some of the other top hitters in the MVC include Mascoutah’s Jeff Hightower (.407, one homer, 26 RBIs) and Wyatt Elbe (.319, 15 doubles, five homers, 30 RBIs) and Highland’s Andrew Winning (.453, eight doubles, 17 RBIs) and Geppert (.402, 25 RBIs).
Civic Memorial’s top run producers have been Devin Daniels (.354, nine doubles, 26 RBIs) and Caleb Buhs (.319, seven doubles, seven triples, 25 RBIs) along with Lukas Jones (.355, eight doubles, 12 RBIs).
HHS 5, Salem 3
The Bulldogs had to rally to overcome an early 2-0 deficit after the Wildcats scored a pair of runs in the top of the second inning. Highland used a four-run fourth frame to seize the lead for good.
In the fourth, the Bulldogs pushed across their four runs on junior Sam Greene’s RBI single, junior Griffin Welz’s two-run single to center field and senior Tyler Kimmle, who walked and scored to cap off a double steal with Welz to double up Salem 4-2.
After Salem cut the deficit in half with a single run in the top of the sixth, Highland got the run right back in the home half.
Winning led off the bottom of the sixth by pulling a single to left. Junior Tyler Pollard courtesy ran for Winning and advanced to second on a wild pitch and moved up to third on an error on the pitcher. Senior Matt Augustin then hjt a sacrifice fly to let Pollard to tag and score the game’s final run.
Senior Pete Baumgartner (1-1) was also the winning pitcher after working the first five innings and allowing just two earned runs and one hit while punching out five. Greene struggled with his control, walking five.
After junior Jordan Smith gave up one earned run on three hits in the sixth, Kimmle came on in the seventh and emphatically closed the door to collect his third save in as many games and in as many days. Kimmle tossed a perfect inning, striking out two.
HHS 4, Waterloo 1
Geppert kept contact to a minimum, punching out nine Waterloo batters while surrendering no earned runs (one overall) and just two hits over six innings. Geppert, who lifted his record to 6-3 and lowered his ERA to 1.47, walked four.
“My cutter was my best pitch tonight. It feels great to get back on track on the mound,” said Geppert, who snapped a three-game losing skid after winning his first five.
Kimmle worked the seventh to earn his second save. He walked one and struck out two.
Kimmle also played a key role at the plate, where he went 2-for-3with a pair of RBIs and one run scored.
Winning and Geppert also rapped out two hits apiece, with Winning also driving in two and Geppert also doubling once and scoring once.
Highland pinned the loss on Tyler McAlister, who yielded three earned runs on three hits and two walks in 3 1/3 innings.
HHS stayed on top for good after scoring a pair of runs in the third on Winning’s two-run single to score Kimmle (walk) and Geppert (double).
After Waterloo scored its only run in the home half of the third on an RBI single by McAlister, Highland retaliated with a two-run top of the fourth to increase its lead to three and complete the game’s scoring.
Kimmle drove in the two runs in the fourth with a single to plate Smith (walk) and Dickman (single).
HHS 4, Jerseyville 3
The Bulldogs were opportunistic, using a pair of Panther mistakes and being aggressive on the bases to score a pair of runs in the top of the seventh and rally from a two-run deficit to score a big come-from-behind win over the Panthers in a key MVC game at Ken Schell Field in Jerseyville.
The Bulldogs trailed 3-2 in the seventh against Jerseyville ace Crick Kimble, got a leadoff double from Winning, his third hit in as many at-bats. Highland did not advance the runner to third on Augustin’s two bunt attempts before Augustin grounded out to Jake Varble at shortstop.
Jim Smith’s single to right chased Winning home with the tying run, and Winning’s great elusive slide past Panthers catcher Hunter Bryant kept Winning from being tagged out after a pinpoint throw Panther right fielder Jacob Witt.
That’s when things got crazy, as Jordan Smith thought he had singled to right to put runners on first and second with one out. But the home plate umpire ruled the ball hit Jim Smith on his way to second and ruled him out, much to the chagrin of Highland coach Joel Hawkins. The umpires huddled and discussed and then ruled both runners safe, to which Jerseyville Darren Perdun and assistant coach Chris Skinner argued that once play was ruled dead, there was no going back on the original call. Both umpires discussed again and ruled that Perdun was correct according to the rules, which angered Hawkins again.
So after all that, Jordan Smith was on first and replaced by pinch-runner Cody Bentlage, who stole second, stole third and scored the winning run when Bryant threw the ball passed third baseman Keilyun Manning on the steal attempt.
“I was just glad the kids hung with it and were in it,” Hawkins said. “… You have that bizarre thing in the seventh inning and then what ends up happening is it might have benefited us. Cody’s one of our best runners. It gives us an opportunity to do something with him. But that’s baseball. There’s no controlling it.
“In the seventh inning, we were trying to bunt, and we didn’t execute there. There’s a couple places where we didn’t execute, but overall, I just like the way our kids battle and fight. They’ve won some ballgames just because they scrape and claw like you saw tonight.”
Jerseyville broke out on top 2-0 in the first on Kimble’s opposite-field double on an 0-2 pitch that drove in Witt, who led off the bottom of the inning with a single on an 0-2 pitch. Varble’s sacrifice fly to right scored Kimble.
Highland got a run back in the third on Seth Luitjohan’s sacrifice fly to left, but the Panthers came right back in the bottom of the third on Kimble’s two-out double the opposite way and Varble’s run-scoring base hit up the middle off starter Greene to make it 3-1.
Jerseyville registered six hits through the first four innings, but got none the rest of the way.
Jim Smith’s solo home run to right in the fifth cut the lead to 3-2 to set the stage for Highland’s seventh-inning comeback.
Kimble took the loss after scattering eight hits and allowing three earned runs with no walks and five strikeouts.
Jordan Smith (3-1) got the win in relief, throwing two scoreless innings after Greene went the first four frames.
Tyler Kimmle, who started at shortstop, retired the side in order with one strikeout to record the save.