It became a punch and counterpunch game from start to finish with the last one determining the winner in eight innings.
The 36th District champion Highlands Bluebirds came back to beat the determined 34th District runner-up St. Henry Crusaders, 5-4 on Sunday to earn a trip to the 9th Region semifinals back at Thomas More Stadium in Florence. Highlands takes on the Conner Cougars for the fourth time this year at 8 p.m. Monday.
“We’ve been in a lot of close games all season,” said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands head coach. “They helped us in this game. (Down 4-0) I told them to first cut the lead in half.”
Both teams had their fair share of walks. Highlands (20-14) drew nine of them with St. Henry (13-20) drawing six to go with two hit by pitches. Three came around to score for the Crusaders and two did for the Bluebirds, including the game-winner.
Senior Ryan DeBurger walked to start the bottom of the eighth then moved to second on a wild pitch. Junior center fielder Callum McAtee and senior shortstop Jack Hendrix then drew consecutive full count walks to load the bases. Junior Zach DeSylva then hit a long fly ball to right deep enough to score DeBurger to end the game.
“It was fun. I knew had to hit something and keep it out of the infield,” DeSylva said. “I tried to shorten up my swing so I could do that. It worked.”
DeBurger also had a key walk to load the bases off St. Henry junior starting pitcher Carson Shea. That walk to load the bases came with two outs after junior first baseman Luke Schneider doubled with one out and junior Codie Forman walked. Senior catcher Brennan Kelsay then drew a bases-loaded walk on a full count to tie the game 4-4 scoring sophomore pinch runner Nolan Schwalbach.
“Crossing home plate felt amazing,” DeBurger said. “Once (DeSylva) got it in the air, I knew there was no chance of getting me out. I just had to make sure to tag up. We practice that every practice.”
St. Henry lefty Drew Flanagan (3-3) then came in and struck out McAtee to end the inning. He also pitched out of another bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the seventh getting Highlands senior third baseman JP Donelan to ground out.
Highlands finished with seven hits. Hendrix led the way reaching base in all five plate appearances going 3-for-3 with a double, two walks and scored one run.
“We’ve been working a lot lately with being cleaner in situational hitting,” Hendrix said. “It’s really good that we figured it out now in tournament time. I told (my teammates) to keep swinging and they’ll drop eventually.”
DeSylva (2-2) came into the game in a tough situation in the top of the sixth. St. Henry loaded the bases with no one out. But DeSylva struck out St. Henry senior second baseman Rhet Ravenscraft on a full count looking and senior catcher Quentin Bolton swinging before getting Shea to fly out to left keeping the Crusaders from adding a run.
“It felt awesome being able to keep us in the game, keep it close,” DeSylva said. “It gave us a shot to come back. If they put the ball in play there, they get at least one run. Striking them out and keeping the runs to zero is kind of what I needed to do there.”
The Crusaders put a runner at second in both the seventh and eighth innings off DeSylva, who struck out six and walked one. But they could not scratch across anymore runs. Junior Brody Benke started for Highlands and pitched into the fifth inning, striking out seven and walking four before senior Logan Weber got the last out of the top of the fifth.
St. Henry finished with five hits. Flanagan led the way going 2-for-4.
“It’s an emotional time,” said Greg Pass, St. Henry head coach. “I’m proud of every one of them. That’s just a great high school baseball game that someone had to lose. Hat’s off to Highlands. Jeremy always has them playing well at the right time. We always have good games against each other.”
The Crusaders had two clutch triples to build a 4-0 advantage. In the top of the first, Shea and senior first baseman Luke Keipert walked before junior third baseman John Lubert hit a triple to left to score Keipert and senior pinch runner Ethan Kaiser. Then in the top of the fifth, Bolton walked and sophomore Jackson Popil ran for him. Popil took second on a passed ball and moved to third when senior left fielder Sam Martin singled. Senior center fielder Matt Resing then tripled to right center scoring them.
But Highlands responded with three in the bottom of the fifth. Donelan singled and moved to second when DeBurger grounded out before moving to third when Kelsay singled. McAtee then grounded out scoring Donelan. After Jack Hendrix walked, the two recorded a double steal and DeSylva lined one to left to plate both of them. However, DeSylva was thrown out at first after running toward second on a throw back to the infield.
St. Henry graduates nine seniors in Bolton, Kaiser, Keipert, Resing, Nick Browning, Braden Fedders, Martin, Ravenscraft and Charlie Lange. They helped the Crusaders to the first region championship game in program history last year.