FORT THOMAS, Ky. -- The regular season is all about getting to this point in the year for Jeremy Baioni and his Highlands High School baseball program.
Settle into roles, find out who fits where in the lineup and on the mound, maybe take a few lumps and suffer some slumps along the way.
But follow the plan and be ready to play the best baseball possible by the end of the year to have a chance at a regional title and a berth in the state tournament.
Highlands has achieved that goal for a third straight year to reach the Kentucky High School Athletic Association State Baseball Tournament and is right where it wants to be -- four wins from a state baseball title. The Bluebirds will play Johnson Central Friday night at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington in a rematch of last season’s opening-round 6-2 win by Johnson Central.
The Bluebirds were 4-6 at one point this season after suffering a six-game losing streak in April, but they bounced back in a big way as players competed for starting jobs and playing time throughout the season. Now Baioni and his coaches have the pieces in place.
“I think that’s why you see us really playing well at the end,” Baioni said. “Everybody has really found their role and they fit into their role. They start to excel.”
Highlands has won seven straight and the Bluebirds are playing their best baseball of the season. It’s all about the system.
“Early in the year, some teams may go out and throw their best guy twice a week or once a week and you’re only playing two games each week,” Baioni said. “We don’t take that approach. We use our regular season as kind of a way to prepare for the postseason, to give guys opportunities and put them in and out.”
They’ve moved guys around to see who the best nine would be and would not over-extend someone for the sake of winning a game in April when the postseason was still to come in May and June.
“Every year we have the discussion mid-April,” Baioni said. “Did this game cost us a chance to win the region?”
The players have bought in. They didn’t get frustrated when losses mounted. They wanted to win games, but they also knew that the ultimate goal is to win the region and get to the state tournament.
“We need to follow Coach Baioni’s plan,” senior right-handed pitcher and infielder Spencer Dee said. “We need to throw strikes and hit our spots. We need to do what we can do and try our best.”
Dee is 3-1 on the mound this season and is part of a dominant pitching staff that has boasted an earned run average of 3.26. Junior left-hander Drew Rom is 9-2 this season with a 1.31 ERA and 109 strikeouts. Senior right-hander Ethan Doty is 5-4 with a 2.63 ERA and 81 strike outs. Doty has two regional final wins as a starting pitcher in his career, including this season, and a state tournament win as a sophomore.
“A lot of that starts for us behind the plate,” Baioni said. “Kyle Rust is a two-year starter back there. He is a senior and he is a guy who hit at the top of the lineup either in the No. 1 or 2 hole the last two years. He’s really kind of the catalysts that gets us going and does a great job with our really deep and talented pitching staff.”
Rust has not allowed a passed ball thus far in the postseason.
“And that is really impressive for a high school kid catching college-level pitchers on a daily basis,” Baioni said.
Highlands has 11 hitters batting better than .270 this season and nine of them have batting averages better than .300. Freshman Ethan Kavanagh is hitting .404 and Rom has hit .400. Doty and senior outfielder Trey Bowden are at .380.
“Ethan Doty does great things for us, not only pitching, but hitting in the cleanup spot,” said senior first baseman Kyle Finfrock, who had the go-ahead two-run double in the Ninth Region final against Conner. “Drew Rom is our main man on the mound and he shows it. Kyle Rust behind the plate isn’t the biggest guy, but he finds a way to get on base almost every at bat.”
Bowden leads the team with 27 runs batted in and Rust has added 23 RBI with his .368 batting average.
“We just follow Coach Baioni’s plan,” Finfrock said. “Hit fastballs and just try to make contact and the rest will follow. Don’t try to hit everything out of the yard. If you make contact, put the ball in play, good things will happen.
“We just go out and have fun and just try to make the most of our experiences and our opportunities.”
Most of the Highlands players were on the field or in the dugout last year when the Bluebirds fell to Johnson Central. Many of them were there two years ago and have valuable state tournament experience.
“We have a lot of experience and we’re a pretty tightly knit group,” Dee said. “We’re all friends and everything.
“Last year, I’m not going to lie, a lot of us really didn’t know what to expect. But this year, I think we are a little more prepared. I feel like we’re a lot more prepared and more experienced.”