Disappointment of Highland’s fourth-place finish fade into memories of ‘special season’

The Highland High School baseball team returned home Saturday evening feeling disappointed after back-to-back losses in the IHSA Class 3A tournament at Duly Health and Care Field in Joliet.

In their first trip to state since winning the 2015 Class 3A championship the Bulldogs fell flat, losing to Lemont 6-3 in the semifinals last Friday afternoon and dropped s heartbreaking 1-0 third-place game in eight innings to Morris on Saturday morning.

Their fourth-place finish left an empty feeling.

But longtime Bulldogs coach Joel Hawkins felt said his club’s 32-8-1 season was a special one that his players will look back on with good memories.

“The kids would have said they came up short but I say that it was a terrific spring,” Hawkins said. “There was the disappointment of not winning the conference but I think at the end of the season that kind of calibrated us for that playoff run.

“So when they look back, they will start to realize it was really a special season because they did band together in key games and beat some really good team and won some really good baseball games.”

Highland came out red-hot at the start of the 2024 season thanks to a blistering 21-1-1 start, which included wins over Alton, Mascoutah, and Marion. That strong start gave Hawkins the mindset that this group could have a special season.

“We were 21-1 and there for a while and it really snapped my nose to the fact that ... whoever we would run into, at least we’re gonna be in the games,” he said.

Trent Clemons, a senior righthander and Chase Knebel, the Bulldogs’ lefthanded junior ace, were the Bulldogs’ pitching leaders during the campaign and gave them a solid shot to win every time they took the mound. Knebel finished the regular season with a 0.31 earned run average while Clemons finished with a 1.72 ERA.

Senior outfielder Jake Ottensmeier, senior Zane Korte, and senior shortstop Trey Koishor were big at the plate for Highland during the spring, hitting .397, .361, and .352 respectively.

Highland opened the postseason with a 23-1 short-game win over East St. Louis on May 22 in the regional semifinal and defeated Waterloo 3-0 on May 25 for the Class 3A regional championship at Waterloo.

“The one game was dissimilar from the other and Waterloo’s and an outstanding team,” Hawkins said.

A 10-0 win at Belleville East on My 20 helped get the Bulldogs ready for the postseason.

Then came the Class 3A sectional at Triad. The Bulldogs beat Salem, 5-2, on May 29 in the sectional semifinals and then topped Mascoutah, 3-2, to claim the sectional championship.

“The Mascoutah game was probably the most emotionally taxing of all the games because Mascoutah’s such a good team and we know each other so well. Going against Mahomet-Seymour Monday wasn’t easy but was a breath of fresh air compared to that,” Hawkins said.

That led the Bulldogs into the Class 3A super-sectional at Millikin University in Decatur on June 3. Highland overcame a slow start and beat Mahomet-Seymour 6-3 to punch its ticket for the Class 3A Tournament.

Hawkins credits his seniors Brayden Bircher, Keaton Favre, Koishor, Korte, Ottensmeier, Abe Hawkins, Adam Munie, Clemons, Cale Houchins, and Deklan Riggs with providing leadership and helping drive the club to the state tournament run.

“These guys, especially Jake and Trey were so focused and worked so hard,” Hawkins said. “It was always just one more ground ball coach or one more popup. What I’ll miss (with them) is just that pursuit of perfection and altogether they wanted success.”

Although the Bulldogs lose 10 seniors to graduation, it will have some good young talent coming back in 2025. Knebel, Braxdon Decker, and Alex Howard will return to pitch along with junior infielder Garrin Stone, and juniors Will Jansen, Carter Holthaus, and sophomore Blake Gelly.

“We’ve got some good pieces in place, so we’ll see how they do,” Hawkins said.