The Highland High School softball team was hoping to lock up the conference crown as well as gain momentum for the looming postseason in its final three games of the regular season, with two of them against rival Triad.
Mission accomplished on both fronts.
First, the Bulldogs thumped the host Knights 8-2 on Thursday to clinch the Mississippi Valley Conference crown for the first time in five years and for just the second time in 17 years. The win also gave HHS its 20th win of the season.
“Winning conference today feels pretty great. It’s the first time I’ve gotten to experience it in my time at HHS,” said senior center fielder Lauren Wright, a St. Louis College of Pharmacy recruit who leads Highland in batting average (.459), on-base percentage (.542), triples (five) and runs scored (41). “Triad is always a good team and winning it on their field made it a little bit sweeter.”
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Highland then traveled to Collinsville and held off the Kahoks 6-4 on Friday before turning around and carving up Triad for the second time in three days, this time by an even more lopsided count of 10-1 on Saturday at HHS.
The Bulldogs finished the regular season with with a four-game winning streak and a 22-8 overall record. Highland wrapped up the MVC with an 8-2 mark, which was two games clear of conference runner-up Mascoutah at 6-4.
The Bulldogs drew the third seed in Sub-Sectional A of the Class 3A Herrin Section and is scheduled to open the playoffs today against seventh-seeded Waterloo in a semifinal of the Class 3A Columbia Regional.
“Everyone is contributing right now and hopefully that puts us in the right direction for postseason play,” Wright said.
Highland 8, Triad 2
Highland coach Greg Exton, who steered his troops to the conference championship in his first year at the helm, said his team was really pumped up prior to the game.
“They were talking about it on the way over here and they knew that if we won the ballgame it was going to lock it up for us,” Exton said of the MVC title after the game. “They were pretty excited to play and they gave a great effort all the way through.”
Highland left-handed ace Aubrey Hacke went the distance and left Triad frustrated after forcing the Knights to leave 11 runners stranded on base while yielding just two unearned runs. Hacke, who allowed seven hits and two walks, struck out four to improve to 6-3 and drop her ERA to a team-low 1.78.
Hacke only allowed one unearned run in each of the fourth and fifth frames, both due in large part to defensive mishaps.
It was HHS’ first MVC championship since 2011 and just its second one since 1999.
“Honestly, that’s so cool to think that we’re the first in a very long time,” said Hacke,who wrapped up the regular season hitting .435 with a .519 on-base percentage to go with a team-leading 32 RBIs. “Hopefully, it’s just a start to what’s going to happen in the postseason, so we’re really psyched.”
The Bulldogs roughed up Knight junior pitcher Kari Sarhage for seven runs (four earned) on eight hits and six walks in 5 1/3 innings.
The brunt of Highland’s run production — three runs in each of the third and sixth innings, and one run in each of the second and seventh frames — was fueled thanks in large part to freshman shortstop Lily Garbett and junior first baseman Hannah Miener.
Garbett, hitting .447 with 31 RBIs, went 2-for-4 with one doubles, two RBIs and one run scored. She doubled and scored in the Bulldogs’ three-run third and she smacked a two-run single in HHS’ three-run sixth.
Miener whacked a two-run double in the third.
Junior catcher Jill Garbett, Lily’s older sister, also had a big game at the dish as she reached base all four times on two singles and two walks.
Hacke also drove home a run with a single to right field in the sixth, and Wright knocked in a run with a single to center in the seventh.
In addition for Highland, sophomore left fielder Lauren Baer singled and scored twice, junior designated hitter Jenna Gnaedinger walked twice and scored once, and junior third baseman Reily Kassay had a double.
Highland 10, Triad 1
Then on Saturday at HHS, Kirsten Plocher got the nod in the circle and she definitely did not disappoint.
Plocher yielded just one unearned run and four hits while walking none and punching out five to up her team-best record to 10-2 and dip her ERA to 2.64.
“Getting that last win definitely feels awesome heading into the postseason,” Plocher said. “We have really stepped up lately and played some great games that will hopefully carry into the postseason. I didn’t feel quite on top of my game as I would have liked today against our rivals but it humbles me to know my team can always pick me up by doing what they do best — which is scoring runs. We have all worked very hard and are so exited to be able to call ourselves conference champs.”
Plocher was supported by a potent offense that pounded Sarhage again, this time for 10 runs (nine earned) on 12 hits — half of them for extra bases —in five innings.
Highland put up four crooked-number innings after scoring four runs in the first, followed by two in each of the second, fourth and fifth innings.
Wright and Kassay showed the way with three hits apiece while Hacke chipped in a pair of doubles.
Hacke and Miener shared game-high honors with three RBIs apiece. Kassay and Wright both scored three times while Kassay also knocked in a pair.
Highland wasted no time in roughing up Sarhage, rallying for a four-run first, which was folo.
Wright greeted Sarhage with a leadoff triple and promptly scored as No. 2 hitter, Kassay, lined a single to left. The big blow came from the Miener in the sixth spot in the batting as she clobbered a three-run double to the gap in left-center to blow it wide open at 4-0.
In HHS’ two-run second, Kassay and Garbett each struck for an RBI double to grow the lead to 6-0.
After Triad got its lone run in the top of the fourth, the Bulldogs responded with two more tallies in the bottom half. Hacke doubled home Kassay (single) and then came home to score on a wild pitch to push the advantage to 8-1.
In the fifth, Hacke drilled a two-run double to right to plate Jill Garbett (single) and Wright (single) to complete the scoring.
Highland 6, Collinsville 4
In between the two wins over Triad, the Bulldogs bested the host Kahoks in a non-conference matchup.
It was a back-and-forth affair early before HHS took the lead for good with a two-run fourth to go on top 4-2. The Bulldogs then tacked on two key insurance tallies in the fifth to build a four-run lead they would never relinquish.
For the game, Highland outhit Collinsville 11-8.
Kassay and junior second baseman Peyton Holzinger each collected three hits while Hacke racked up a game-high three RBIs on two hits (one double).
Kassay’s RBI single to center in the fourth gave her team the lead for good at 3-2. Kassay then came around to score on a double by Hacke.
Then in the fifth, Hacke lined a two-run single to center to stake HHS to a 6-2 advantage.
Junior Jenna Gnaedinger (4-2) got the win for Highland. She allowed four runs (three earned) over seven innings. She struck out seven, walked two and gave up eight hits.