Highland's Improbable Run Ends With 3A State Crown

By Sean Duncan
Executive Director

JOLIET, IL – Highland didn’t have the luxury of riding the greatness of Jake Odorizzi this time around, as it did when the Bulldogs last won a state championship in 2008. Nor did it have the offensive prowess of that team.

No, on Saturday morning Highland brought home the school’s second Class 3A championship on its collective grit, fundamentals and, ultimately, resiliency. In an incredible back-and-forth championship game, the Bulldogs defeated Nazareth, 7-6, on Grant Geppert’s bases-loaded single in the bottom of the seventh inning at Silver Cross Field.

One could say the Bulldogs’ state-title run was a mild surprise, given Highland (28-13) entered the tournament on a four-game losing streak and, as a team, had only hit five home runs all season. Quite a contrast from the Highland team of 2008 when Player of the Year Odorizzi, a first-round draft who’s now in the big leagues, allowed one earned run all season while the team collectively hit 47 homers.

“All these guys did was battle all season,” said longtime Highland coach Joel Hawkins, who has won 538 games in his 24 years at the St. Louis-metro area school. "They didn’t know that they weren’t that good. They just fought like mad.”

The Bulldogs needed every last ounce of intestinal fortitude against Nazareth (32-9) on Saturday. It started even before the game, when Hawkins got notified at 7:20 a.m. that the IHSA was flipping the game to 9 a.m. to beat the rain. And the fight didn’t end until Geppert lifted the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the seventh to right field, scoring Tyler Kimmle to give Highland its improbable state championship.

“This was like a heavyweight battle,” said Hawkins. “We were behind, and the kids just kept battling.”

One big play after another, one momentum shift after another, the pendulum seemed to have finally swung decisively to Nazareth’s corner when the Roadrunners pushed three runs across in the top of the sixth to mount a 6-4 advantage.

But Highland responded in the bottom half of the sixth with two runs thanks to three walks, one hit by pitch and a bunt single by Greenwald. Matt Augustin’s bases-loaded walk tied the game at 6-6.

Nazareth responded in the seventh to load the bases with two outs. Then came arguably the play of the game: Nazareth’s Richie Kiernicki appeared to be the game’s hero when he laced a grounder near the third-base bag, which would’ve scored multiple runs. But senior Griffin Welz made a diving play to his left to knock it down and crawled to the bag for the force and escape the inning.

Welz’s diving stop in the seventh was one of five innings that Highland’s defense ended a Nazareth rally with either a double play or a web gem.

In the bottom of the seventh, with Nazareth using its fifth pitcher of the game, Kimmle singled with one out to start the rally. Will Greenwald followed with his second hit of the game, and unsigned senior shortstop Cody Bentlage then ripped a 3-2 pitch through the left side to load the bases, bringing up Geppert, the team’s No. 3 hitter with the bases juiced.

Geppert stripped the moment of any suspense when he took the first pitch he saw from Matt Wilson into right field, which ignited a wild celebration on the field.

“I was just looking for a fastball to hit, and I got one,” said Geppert, who played a huge role in Highland’s championship run. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound senior pitched four innings in Highland’s 13-0 win over Morgan Park on Friday night, needing only 51 pitches to earn the victory. Fairly fresh, Geppert came back to pitch four innings of relief Saturday, yielding five hits and three runs with four strikeouts. He also finished 2-for-4 with a run and the game-winning RBI.

Geppert, however, was far from the only hero for the Bulldogs. Bentlage made a big name for himself in the two games in Joliet. Aside from playing a defense at shortstop, he went 3-for-4 with two runs against Nazareth. Junior centerfielder Andrew Winning had four RBI, including a big two-run double in the fifth.

Nazareth, which earned its third state trophy in five years, came oh-so close to bringing home its first championship trophy. The Roadrunners pushed three runs across in the sixth thanks to a run-scoring double by Kiernicki and Ryan Kramer’s two-run single, giving them a 6-4 advantage. The Roadrunners showed their resiliency as well, fighting back from some momentum-shifting gaffes, including an obstruction call in the fifth when the runner got picked off, which was then followed by an error that ultimately resulted in two runs.

Kramer finished 2-for-4 with two RBI and a run, while left fielder Matt Flach went 3-for-4 with a run-scoring triple. Junior Joe Muscolino and junior catcher Shane Gipson each had two hits for Nazareth.

“That was like an old 15-round prize fight,” said Nazareth coach Lee Milano. “It was a game of inches. … Both teams really battled, and the game could’ve gone either way. I’m proud of the way the kids battled.”

In the end, Highland made fewer mistakes, playing an error-free championship game.

“It was a roller-coaster season, that is for sure,” said Hawkins. “I’m just so proud of these kids.”

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