Prep Baseball & Softball

Baseball family: Highland’s strong tradition hoping to produce another state champ

After Highland’s emotional 3-2 super-sectional win Monday at Sauget’s GCS Ballpark, the Bulldogs stayed on the field a long time after the game.

They were joined at first by parents wanting pictures, then fans and many former players all beaming with pride with the Bulldogs’ first state baseball tournament trip since the 2008 team won a state title. No one wanted to leave.

In 24 seasons of coaching baseball at Highland, Joel Hawkins has a really good feel not only for his players, but the parents and the community. He loves where he is and it shows.

“What have we got? We’ve got our kids,” said Hawkins, whose 26-13 club will take on Morgan Park in the Class 3A semifinals at noon Friday in Joliet. “We’re close to the big city, but there’s corn between us and the big city. We’ve got a lot of folks that go into St. Louis to work, but we’ve also got folks raising corn.

“It’s a tight community, but when their kids do something they show up. They get behind it because it’s what we have.”

This team in no way resembles the 2008 Highland state championship squad that included first-round Major League Draft pick Jake Odorizzi, now pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays, and a future Division I player in Danny Gifford.

That team hit 47 home runs. The 2015 Bulldogs have four.

“Watching them play was ridiculous,” Highland senior catcher Matt Augustin said of the 2008 team. “I told Coach Hawkins that seven years ago watching them I never would have guessed or expected we’d be the next team to follow them.”

Highland’s top two-way talent this season has been senior pitcher-first baseman Grant Geppert, who signed with Olney Central Comuinity College. Geppert, who will start the playoff opener Friday, is 8-3 with a 1.89 ERA and also is hitting .378 with a team-leading 29 RBIs.

“Everybody’s doing a little bit of everything,” Geppert said. “It’s kind of been that way throughout the playoffs.”

The 2015 Bulldogs have done everything the hard way. They won 15 of their first 16 games, lost eight of their next nine, then battled inconsistency down the stretch as they won five in a row before dropping their final four regular-season games.

Once they reached the playoffs, the magic began.

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The Bulldogs beat Mississippi Valley Conference foes Civic Memorial and Jerseyville to win a regional, then had to knock off MVC rival Waterloo to reach the sectional final. Once there, they overcame a 4-1 deficit in the sixth inning and came back to defeat Mount Vernon 6-5.

There was another comeback in the Sauget Super-Sectional as Highland overcame a 2-0 deficit with three runs in the sixth — including a two-run homer by Andrew Winning. It was the first home run of his career, leading Hawkins to believe there might be something special going on along with the improved offense, defense or pitching.

“They’ve become a family,” said Hawkins, who got a phone call from Odorizzi earlier this week and recently had Gifford talk to his players about his state tourney experience. “It’s a humbling experience because what you realize as you go through it more than anything is there’s a hand that’s a lot bigger than yours, and not yours, that has a lot more to do with it than you do.

“It’s just so much fun watching these kids. When you’re (at state) everybody thinks they belong there and everybody wants that one prize. These kids think they belong.”

Not that things have been easy on this roller-coaster ride of as season.

“This has been hard on the heart,” Hawkins said. “The last one (in 2008) I could throw Jake out there and it was like ‘Let’s see if anybody’s gonna hit him.’ This time it’s like how are these kids going to do it this time?’

“They’ve been able to do things multiple ways and have swung the bats really well throughout this postseason run. It’s been a great bunch.”

Added responsibility

Hawkins puts a lot of trust in his players, but went a few steps further with this particular group. When seniors Augustin and Cody Bentlage came to him asking if they could wear some old-fashioned stirrup socks, Hawkins signed off on it even those his past teams never wore them.

“We were like ‘If we’re going to wear high socks, we should get some stirrups,” Augustin said.

“That comes from Coach Hawkins getting old and soft,” Hawkins joked. “They showed me these gaudy stirrups and I said you know what? This is part of backing off and letting them own it a bit.”

Hawkins didn’t stop there. He and pitching coach Sam Weber have typically called all the pitches, but this season they entrusted Augustin with the added responsibility.

It meant a lot to the senior catcher.

“It’s great. It’s an honor,” Augustin said. “Last year we talked about it little bit and he called most of them and I’d call them every once in a while. They still call pitches here and there and if I need help, I’ll look over there. It’s been a great experience.

“It’s awesome to be part of the pitching staff, helping them out and being a coach on the field.”

Star athletes

Two of the top athletes in Highland history have a connection to this team. Odorizzi was named USA Today’s National Player of the Year in 2008 after helping the Bulldogs win a state title and received a signing bonus worth over $1 million to sign with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Now 25, Odorizzi is 15-20 in four major league seasons with Kansas City and Tampa Bay, including 4-5 with season with a 3.67 ERA. He is currently on the 15-day disabled list with a left oblique muscle strain.

“One of my good friends when we were little was (former Highland outfielder) Gary Kharibian’s little brother, so Jake was over at their house all the time,” Augustin said. “I’ve talked to him a few times. Me and my family went to Kansas City when he threw his first game in the major leagues.

“It’s a really big deal watching him pitch, especially coming out of a small town like this to be on national TV.”

When Odorizzi got a start last season against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, much of Highland showed up and gave him a standing ovation when he left the mound.

Current Highland pitcher Tyler Kimmle has an older brother, Andrew Kimmle, that was a junior on the 2008 team.

“The 2008 team had some amazing players,” Tyler Kimmle said. “I can name them all.”

The yonger Kimmle has impressed Hawkins down the stretch with his relief appearances and game-winning hit to beat Mount Vernon.

“He’s come into every game for the last four games and either got a save or win or something,” Hawkins said. “He’s gotten really confident in that role.”

Highland center fielder and leadoff man Will Greenwald, hitting .331 with 40 stolen bases, has a famous father of his own. His dad is former Highland all-state running back Billy Greenwald, who ran for over 2,000 yards as a senior in 1989 and set a state record with 45 touchdowns while leading the Bulldogs to the Class 4A semifinals.

That TD record has since been surpassed, but folks around Highland have no trouble remember the player known as “Touchdown” Billy Greenwald, who played college football at Northwestern.

Hawkins is ready for Highland’s next adventure.

“I would not suggest losing eight of nine in the middle of the schedule and then losing four in a row at the end of your schedule,” he said. “That’s not exactly what you do to get ready for a state run. The kids have done a really good job of being resilient and staying with it, being there at the end.”