Both coaches compared the game to a 15-round prizefight, an emotional blow-for-blow ride with about a dozen turns before an outcome was decided.
But senior Grant Geppert scored the knockout for Highland with a seventh-inning, bases-loaded single to give the Bulldogs a 7-6 win over (LaGrange Park) Nazareth Academy and their second Illinois Class 3A state baseball championship since 2008.
“This postseason has seemed like one game after another like this, but this was like a heavyweight battle,” said Highland coach Joel Hawkins. “These guys fight, though — it’s the one thing I keep seeing from them. We were behind in the fifth and sixth and in the seventh inning they just kept fighting and didn’t care where they were.”
A state title in Highland looked like a long shot, even to the Bulldogs, especially after they closed the regular season with four straight losses. But a clean sweep of the postseason brought a baseball championship trophy back to the metro east for the first time since Gibault captured the 1A title in 2013.
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“Ask Coach Hawkins about his blueprint for the state championships — lose eight of nine in the middle of the season and the last four in a row heading into regionals,” the coach deadpanned. “You know, I think what helped was that ‘one-game thing’ — you know, ‘one pitch at a time, one inning at a time’? We had to focus that way in order to keep playing.”
Saturday’s title game had just about everything including 21 hits, nine pitchers, diving catches, errors, a controversial call, and four lead changes.
It also had a surprise early-morning wake-up call.
The game originally was scheduled for 11:30 a.m., after the 3A third-place game. But after multiple rain delays throughout Friday’s semifinals and an ominous Saturday evening forecast, the IHSA elected to play the championship games first and leave the third-place games at the mercy of the coming storms.
“The first thing we were all fighting was a 7:20 call saying ‘oh, by the way, your game is at 9,’” Hawkins said. “We’re in the hotel, we have to get them up, check out, get them some breakfast and get them here for a 9 o’clock game. That was the first fight.”
Even with a rushed breakfast and abbreviated infield practice, the Highland defense was sharp enough to make the difference in the game.
“Our center fielder made a big play, the shortstop and some double plays ... I lost count of them,” Hawkins said. “The defense was outstanding and the guys take a lot of pride in it.”
The Bulldogs (28-13) killed Nazareth Academy rallies in five innings with clutch glove work.
With three fresh arms available to him, Hawkins started senior Pete Baumgartner, who entered the game with a 1.59 ERA through 44 innings. He didn’t make it past the first, but three Bulldog pitchers teamed up in relief.
Geppert’s rebounded from throwing four shut-out innings in Friday’s semifinal win over Morgan Park to throw three and a third Saturday. Highland was down 3-0 when he took the ball in the top of the third, but he faced just 11 batters through three scoreless innings that gave the Bulldogs time to take a lead.
“When I came out in the fourth inning yesterday, I knew I’d be on call today so I was prepared for it,” Geppert said.
Nazareth Academy’s Matt Wilson drew a walk to lead off the sixth and Shane Gipson singled to put an end to Geppert’s day on the mound.
“He was at just about 100 pitches through the two games and we weren’t going to go any further than that,” said Hawkins. “Plus Kimmle has been our late-inning guy in the postseason and the regular season for those spots. We’re really confident in him.”
The Bulldogs had, in the meantime, taken the lead with a run each in the first and third and two more on a two-run single by Andrew Winning in the fifth.
Both runners put on base by Geppert in the sixth scored on RBI hits by Richie Kiernicki and Ryan Kramer to put the Roadrunners back on top. But Highland responded with two in its half of the sixth to tie the game and set up the seventh inning dramatics.
The Bulldogs loaded the bases in the bottom of the seventh on consecutive singled by Kimmle, Greenwald and Bentlage. Geppert followed with the game-winner off of Nazareth Academy reliever Matt Wilson.
“I was just looking for a fastball to hit and I wanted to hit it to the right side,” said Geppert.
Kimmle got the last out of the sixth and pitched a scoreless seventh to earn the win.
Nazareth Academy’s season ends at 32-9. This season marked the Roadrunners third trip to state in five years. They placed fourth in 2011 and third in 2012.
“However far we make it — whether we’re here or don’t get past the regional — you want the kids to take away some memories,” Milano said. “This is hard, but saying goodbye to the seniors every year is the hardest part of every season for me.”
Game at a Glance
PITCHING: Highland used four pitchers including starter Pete Baumgartner who didn’t make it out of the first. Grant Geppert threw three scoreless innings and Tyler Kimmle pitched the dramatic seventh to get the win. Nazareth Academy used five pitchers including starter Christopher Campagna who allowed two earned runs through four innings. Matt Wilson, who entered the game with one out in the bottom of the seventh, took the loss.
ROADRUNNER FIRST: Ryan Kramer doubled to deep center and Matt Flach singled him to third. Kramer scored on a passed ball and Flach scored on a bases-loaded balk called on Baumgartner. Nazareth Academy 2, Highland 0
BULLDOGS FIRST: Will Greenwald walked and Cody Bentlage and Geppert each singled to load the bases. Greenwald scored on a fielder’s choice off the bat of Jordan Smith. Nazareth Academy 2, Highland 1
ROADRUNNERS SECOND: Richie Kiernicki reached on a fielder’s choice and scored on a triple by Flach. Nazareth Academy 3, Highland 1
BULLDOGS THIRD: Bentlage tripled to center and scored on a sacrifice fly by Andrew Winning. Nazareth Academy 3, Highland 2
BULLDOGS FIFTH: Bentlage was hit by a pitch and Geppert reached on a linedrive off the first baseman’s glove. Bentlage got trapped between second and third on a pick-off throw from the mound, but he got tangled with the Roadrunners’ third baseman and was ruled safe on an obstruction call. Andrew Winning doubled home both runs with a double down the line. Highland 4, Nazareth Academy 3
ROADRUNNERS SIXTH: Wilson and Gipson walked and advanced on a sacrifice bunt. Kiernicki then dropped a double between the Highland left and center fielders, who both dove for the ball, to drive home Wilson and tie the game. Gipson and Kiernicki scored on a single by Kramer. Nazareth Academy 6, Highland 4
BULLDOGS SIXTH: Kimmle was hit by a pitch, Greenwald reached on a bunt hit and Geppert walked to load the bases. Winning grounded out to second base to allow Kimmle to score. The Nazareth Academy reliever Carson Bartels walked Smithy and Matt Augustin to force home Greenwald with the tying run. Highland 6, Nazareth Academy 6.
BULLDOGS SEVENTH: Kimmle, Greenwald and Bentlage singled to load the bases and Geppert followed with a walk-off single to deep left-center field. Highland 7, Nazareth Academy 6
RECORDS: Highland, 28-13; Nazareth Academy, 32-9