UTICA — Utica High School baseball coach Bren Henderson knew this season would be a tough one.
The Redskins upgraded their nonconference schedule in hopes of being better prepared for a postseason run. And, after losing the first game of the season on Monday at Lakewood, Henderson wanted to see his team rebound at home against Highland on Tuesday.
Utica did just that, but not without some drama first. The Scots took an early 2-1 lead and then watched as the Redskins stormed ahead with a five-run fourth inning. Even then, Utica had to hold off a Highland rally for a 7-5 victory.
“The kids showed a lot of resilience,” said Henderson. “We got behind early, but I felt like they were pitchers that we could hit. ... We just had to get it down in the strike zone. We were a little undisciplined. Once we started bunting, that was the key to the game — small ball.”
The Scots, coming off a season-opening win over Centerburg, wasted little time in getting going. Jake Hampton singled to leadoff the game, moved up on an error and them came home on a fielder’s choice by Cole Randolph to put Highland up, 1-0, in the first inning.
After Highland pitcher Justin Pugh escaped a jam in the bottom of the first inning, his teammates added another run in the top of the second. Garrett Ulrey singled to leadoff and moved up on a sacrifice bunt by Lance Stambaugh. Austin Schindley drove Ulrey in with a single to right-center field.
“We pieced a couple together early,” said Highland coach Travis Church. “The boys did a great job of sacrificing, moving runners around and we got some key base hits. We try to win each inning and we won the first couple. ... We started out good. Justin was really pitching well for us. He kept the ball down and did the things we were asking.”
Utica took back a run in the bottom of the inning, taking advantage of two Highland errors. Rob Shaw singled to lead off, moved up on an error and a passed ball, and then raced home on a sacrifice fly by Jeremy Jenkins.
Pugh struggled in the third inning, walking the first two Utica batters. Jerrod Ours then reached on another Scot error to load the bases, but Pugh buckled down. He struck out the next two batters before inducing a pop foul to get out of the inning.
Highland went three up, three down in the top of the fourth inning — the only time in the game — and the Redskins went to work in the bottom of the inning. Highland’s defense fell apart in the frame and — combined with three Utica hits — allowed five runs to cross the plate. Michael Sandman, Shaw and Travis Dassylva each drove in a run in the inning and chased Pugh. Shawn Coburn relieved Pugh and got the Scots out of the inning.
“You look at that one inning defensively; we didn’t help Justin (Pugh) out,” said Church. “We want the kids to understand we win as a team and lose as a team. ... Today, it just comes down to you can’t give a team like Utica extra outs. That’s what we did in the one inning, and we dug us a hole, too big of a hole that we couldn’t get out of.”
Down four runs, Highland began its comeback in the top of the fifth. Three straight one-out singles by Justin Staton, Pugh and Randolph plated two runs to cut the deficit in half. Then, in the top of the sixth, Cade Randolph doubled and scored after a pair of Redskin errors to make it a one-run game, 6-5.
“The kids didn’t stop fighting, and that’s what I really like about this group,” said Church. “They are staying together and staying positive. They come back out each inning and fight.”
Utica tacked on an insurance run in the bottom of the inning, and the Redskins nearly needed it. Highland loaded the bases in the top of the seventh with two out, but Hampton grounded out to end the game.
Shaw picked up the win for Utica, pitching six strong innings. Shaw walked one and struck out six. Joe Wheeler pitched the seventh inning, picking up the save. At the plate, Ours and Shaw each went 2-for-4. Ours scored twice, and Shaw scored once and drove in one. Sandman had a hit, a run scored and an RBI; and Derek Beaver added a hit and an RBI.
“Rob pitched real well; he had a little bad luck behind him a few times, but he pitched well,” said Henderson. “He reached his pitch count there in the sixth, and it was time to bring in Joe Wheeler. He did a pretty good job of shutting it down.”
Pugh suffered the loss for Highland, striking out four. Cade Randolph and Hampton each went 2-for-4 with a run scored. Cole Randolph had a hit and drove in three; Staton, Pugh and Ulrey each had a single and scored a run; and Schindley singled and drove in a run.
“Early on in a couple of our scrimmages, we were kind of passive at the plate. Today, the boys did a great job attacking early in the count. I was happy with our approach at the plate,” Church said.
Both teams return to action today. Utica host Bloom-Carroll in another nonleague game, while Highland opens Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference play with a game at Elgin. Both games begin at 4:30 p.m.
“I think this will make us better; I hope so,” Church said. “We’ve got a good group, and they hate losing, which is always good. They know exactly why we lost the game and what we’ve got to fix. That is a good situation. We’ve got our first league tomorrow against Elgin.”
“We’ve got Bloom-Carroll (today) and then Walsh Jesuit on Friday, and if you know anything about high school baseball, both of those teams are usually tough,” said Henderson. “This will get us ready for league play because we will see better pitching, better defense and better hitting. I think it will help us as the season goes along. What doesn’t kill you only make you stronger.”