June 17th, 2018

St. X baseball wins eighth state championship

Block_eric thorne

Eric Thorne

Staff Writer

St. X baseball wins eighth state championship
Ryan Nicholson (left), Andrew Littlefield and Trey Sweeney were all tournament selections. Nicholson was named MVP (photo by Eric Thorne)

LEXINGTON. Ky - All season the St. Xavier baseball team battled their way to 36 wins using a balanced attack on the mound and at the plate.

Yet win number 37 was the sweetest Saturday night as it earned the Tigers (37-2) their eighth championship at the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament with a 10-6 win over Highlands.

It literally took a gutsy pitching effort from reliever Brycen Harkins, and a hitting display from tournament MVP Ryan Nicholson who nearly hit for the cycle with a single, double, home run and drove home 3 RBI’s.

“I honestly didn’t think I was going to get it even though my teammates did, but it’s such a great feeling and I have to hand it to my teammates,” Nicholson said. “This team is so talented, but we just battled all year just like we did tonight and it paid off.  We didn’t have to be great all the time, but play decent baseball and it all came together.”

Harkins came in to hurl 3 2/3 innings striking out five of the 17 hitters he faced, and his only errant pitch was a 2-run homer by Drew Rom in the seventh. He finished with an 8-0 record for the year.

“This is very exciting right now, and I would never have thought it would feel like this,” Harkins said. “I wasn’t really nervous until late in the game honestly because I had to be ready if they called my name.”

However, it was his recovery in the sixth inning that was the most impressive after taking a lined shot into the stomach off the bat of leadoff hitter Ethan Kavanaugh.

“That really hurt and hit me square in the chest knocking the wind out of me,” Harkins said. “Had to be one of the hardest balls I’ve ever seen hit. “

Harkins dropped the turf but leapt up to retrieve the ball keeping the runners from advancing. After doubling over a few minutes he convinced Tiger coach Andy Porta to stay in the game.

The junior proceeded to throw six consecutive strikes as Joe Steiden and Bryce Ziegler each struck out looking.

That spurned a four-run offensive explosion in the bottom of the sixth that broke a 6-4 game open for the Tigers.

“Brycen threw super and I think that’s the third game he’s thrown in the tournament and has two wins,” Porta said. “I know he didn’t need a wakeup call but that was kind of one, and he was a real bulldog to finish that inning. That was huge.”

Highlands (29-14) got on the board to open the game when Kavanaugh singled, stole second and scored when Harkins dropped the potential third out in center after appearing to catch the ball.

St. X struck right back as Highlands starting pitcher Hunter Devers threw seven straight balls walking Alex Adams and giving up a single to Aric Lyons. Trey Sweeney drove them both in with a bouncer over the first base bag. Cam Scheler plated Sweeney with a single to left as Stieden threw widely to third.

“Playing a role in a state championship game my senior year is absolutely unbelievable,” Sweeney said. “ I was on the bench in 2016 but didn’t get to play, but tonight my teammates just wanted me to do my job and for the most part I think I did.”

Devers was replace by Grady Cramer without recording an out allowing three runs off three hits.

Each team got a run in the third inning with Highlands getting theirs on a sacrifice fly off starter Andrew Littlefield.

“I wanted to do whatever it takes to help this team succeed either on the mound, in the field or at the plate,” said Littlefield, who pitched 2 1/3 innings giving up two runs.

St. X got the run back as Scheler walked, moved to second on a single by Littlefield and raced home on a single by Nicholson.

“That really felt amazing once it cleared the fence knowing that it gave us a two run lead at this stage in the state championship was pure happiness,” Nicholson said.

Highlands answered with two runs in the top of the forth with four singles to even the game at 4-4.

St. X had their bats virtually silenced  by Cramer since the first inning, but in the fifth Littlefield drew a leadoff walk and Nicholson crushed a home run over the right field fence to give the Tigers a 6-4 lead.

“I think it was about the fifth inning I turned to or pitching coach and said this is a really good night to be the home team because it looked like last bats might win,” Porta said. “I was surprised they took Devers out which was the play of the game for them because Cramer came in and shut us down for awhile. But I think each of their pitchers eventually got tired.”

The Tigers added four insurance runs in the sixth when Littlefield hit a 3-run homer in almost the same place as Nicholson’s, and Brandon Tucker singled home Lyons for the final run.

Of course he had a little motivation not getting to dress for the 2016 title game.

“Yeah to be honest it was motivation to improve, get better and be standing here experiencing this,” Littlefield said. “I was in the stands back then, but I wanted to be in the dog pile this time.”

Rom’s home run sent a few nerves into Harkins.

“I knew after that I had to get the last dude out because with two outs the dude on deck was the one that hit me in the chest, and I wanted to get the guy in front of him out badly,” Harkins said. “But when he it to Trey I knew it was game over.”

St. X had seven players with a base hit and six scored runs.

“There isn’t one hole in our offense or defense because everyone on the team hits and fields and just does their job and that made us such a good team,” said Sweeney who finished with a hit, scored two runs and drove in two.

“I’m proud of the four seniors on this team and the really good junior group that you will hear a lot more from,” Sweeney said. “Brycen has been clutch for us this year, and right now I can’t wait to celebrate with all of my teammates.”

Highland pitchers issued 11 walks in the game that proved hard to overcome.

“We talked about for the past 24 hours what a good hitting team with a lot of pop 1 through 9, and you just can’t give them free bases because they swing it too well ,” said Highlands coach Jeremy Baioni. “That’s a fine team they have, and we had our chances and fought till the end despite giving up three runs to start the game.”

Porta reflected on the road to another title.

“By far the thing that is different about this team is just how good they are offensively,” Porta said. “We played a challenging schedule to get them ready for this game, and I’m very proud of them even though they will admit they played tight.”

As Littlefield looked up at the scoreboard with the St. X state champions behind him he reflected on his last time wearing at Tiger uniform.

“This is indescribable and breathtaking to see that on the scoreboard and to hang the state champion flag," Littlefield said with a smile. "And most definitely something I’ll never forget,” Littlefield said.


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