Highland: Sports

Bulldogs’ bullish defense saved the game with rally killing plays

Highland's (3) Seth Luitjohan 2nd baseman fields the ground ball for the out at 1st base against LaGrange Park (Nazareth Academy) and Highland won 7-6 at the IHSA 3A State Championship game held at Silver Cross Field, Joliet, IL. on Saturday,June 13, 2015. | Larry W. Kane for Belleville News-Democrat Media
Highland's (3) Seth Luitjohan 2nd baseman fields the ground ball for the out at 1st base against LaGrange Park (Nazareth Academy) and Highland won 7-6 at the IHSA 3A State Championship game held at Silver Cross Field, Joliet, IL. on Saturday,June 13, 2015. | Larry W. Kane for Belleville News-Democrat Media Belleville News-Democrat Newspaper and Highland News-Leader

Senior Grant Geppert’s walk-off single will likely, and deservedly, go down as the signature moment in the Highland Bulldogs’ 3A state championship-clinching win over Nazareth Academy Saturday.

But there were at least five moments when the Bulldogs were in the field that were just as important to the victory.

“We got some great plays from my center fielder, my shortstop ... gosh, I lose track of it all,” said Highland coach Joel Hawkins. “From a coach’s standpoint, it was great to look out and see that nine guys were able to contribute defensively. They take a lot of pride in it.”

The Bulldogs killed Nazareth Academy rallies with certified defensive gems in five of the seven innings played:

▪  Nazareth Academy took a 2-0 lead and still had the bases loaded with one out in the top of the first. Second baseman Tyler Kimmle started a double play that ended the inning and got the Bulldogs out of a jam from which they may otherwise have not recovered.

“Our big turn, I think, was in the first inning because we got that double play,” Hawkins said. “We were in big trouble and got that double play to end the inning with two runs in instead of what could have been a lot more. Then, we got that one run in the bottom and it helped the kids know what kind of game it was going to be.”

▪  In the second, center fielder Will Greenwald had just been burned by a run-scoring triple off the bat of Nazareth Academy’s Matt Flach. The next batter, Carson Bartels roped a sinking liner into right-center field which would have driven home Flach. But Greenwald saved it with a diving back-handed catch.

▪  In the fourth, Nazareth Academy outfielder Joe Muscolino singled with one out and advanced to second on a soft grounder. Highland shortstop Cody Bentlage made a diving catch to his glove-hand side to take a hit away from lead-off batter Ryan Kramer and, possibly, another run off the board.

“We’ve been solid defensively this whole post season,” Bentlage said. “Everybody just runs around and has fun.”

▪  With one out in the fifth, Nazareth Academy loaded the bases for the second of five times during the game. But Bentlage scooped up a ground ball near second, touched the base and finished the inning-ending double play with a strong throw to first.

▪  And in the seventh, with the bases loaded and the score tied with two out, third baseman Griffin Welz took at least two runs off the Roadrunner’s board. Nazareth Academy’s Richie Kiernicki hit a hard grounder on the third base line, but Welz dove to his right to knock the ball down. He scrambled on his hands and knees to corral the ball and reached for the bag with it to end the threat on a force out.

“Griffin made what was just an incredible play to save us in the seventh inning,” Hawkins said.

Nazareth Academy coach Lee Milano said the Bulldogs’ failure to make any of those plays would likely have led to a different outcome.

“It’s game of inches,” he said. “They made some great plays where, if the ball goes through on just a couple, we end up with four of rive more runs.”

Sports Editor Todd Eschman can be reached at teschman@bnd.com or 239-2540. Follow him on Twitter: @tceschman.

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