Highlands baseball uses mix of older, younger players to continue playoff run

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Saturday, May 18, 2019 | 8:22 PM


As the stress began to build in Highlands’ first postseason appearance in more than a decade and a half, one of the Golden Rams’ most experienced players gave way to one of their youngest.

Senior Noah Gillette reached the WPIAL’s pitch limit one batter into the seventh inning, and Highlands coach Jeff Campbell turned to freshman Jett Slepak to preserve the team’s four-run lead. And while two runs crossed the plate, Slepak did his job, finishing off the No. 14 Golden Rams’ 6-4 victory over No. 3 Thomas Jefferson — the biggest upset, by seed, of any WPIAL baseball or softball team in the postseason so far.

“I was a little bummed getting out because I don’t like getting pulled, and I knew I had many more pitches in my arm but I was fine with it because I could trust that Jett was going to come in here and close it out for us,” Gillette said of the ninth-grader, who struck out Thomas Jefferson’s Dylan Mallozzi — the tying run — to end the game.

It was a big moment, but it’s one Highlands continues to live up to.

The Golden Rams (11-8), who play No. 6 Beaver in the WPIAL Class 4A semifinals at 4:30 p.m. Monday at Pullman Park in Butler, showed little nervousness in their first playoff appearance since 2003. They scored a run in the first inning off the favored Jaguars to take an early lead, piled on with five runs in the top of the fifth and held off Thomas Jefferson’s late rally.

“The first inning, everyone was a little shaky,” said senior outfielder Zac Kuniak, who hit a bases-clearing triple in the five-run fifth, “but after that we were fine. The atmosphere was different, but we stepped up, made it happen.”

It has been a fast rise for Highlands, which came into the season amid an 11-year streak of losing seasons and with a 15-year postseason drought to boot. The Golden Rams finished 4-13 last season, their first under Campbell, a Highlands graduate. And 2019 didn’t start promisingly, either, as Highlands lost its first three section games by a combined 33-5 score.

But then everything began to click. The Golden Rams upset Yough, 8-6, for their first section win, then followed that with three more over Indiana, Knoch and Mt. Pleasant to move into playoff position. They clinched their spot with a win over Indiana in their penultimate section game.

“I feel, honestly, in the past we could have definitely made some playoff runs, but I feel that we didn’t have the team connection that we do now,” Gillette said. “I feel if we’ve got a good team connection, that’s all you really need. We’ve got good talent on the team, but if you don’t have the connection, if you don’t have the trust in your teammates, it’s not good enough.”

Highlands relies on a mix of experience and inexperience, just as it did against Thomas Jefferson. Gillette, a Pitt-Johnstown recruit, leads the team on the mound and at the plate. Slippery Rock recruit Kuniak tops the team in batting average, and senior Jaden Yarris provided strong defense in center field against TJ.

But the Golden Rams get plenty of production from the underclassmen: junior catcher Matt Cekada, one of the team’s most improved hitters; Johnny Crise, who came out for baseball this spring after last playing in middle school and now bats second in the lineup; sophomores Trent Bielak and Luke Beer; and freshmen Slepak and Tanner Nulph, the team’s No. 2 and 3 pitchers.

“They’ve got heart, and they’ve got fire,” Campbell said. “And it all comes with all that work they’ve done through the winter and up through the spring. They’ve come a long way. (There’s) good leadership: Kuniak, Gillette, Jaden Yarris. … We have faith in all our other freshmen, too, guys that are working hard and coming a long way.”

The Golden Rams have come a long way, but they would like to go further.

“It’s the same game, just a different title at the top of it,” Gillette said. “You’ve just got to adapt and overcome. It might be a little hyped up, but you’ve just got to go out there, relax and play the game.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Doug at 412-388-5830, dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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