HS Baseball: Highlanders Topple the Wildkats to Clinch Their Spot in the Postseason

By: Jake Wilson
| Published 04/19/2024


THE WOODLANDS, TX -- The Woodlands Highlanders (17-10-2) secured a playoff spot by defeating the previously top-seeded Willis Wildkats (20-7) in a nail-bitter in Scotland Yard.

Knowing that a victory would secure a playoff spot, the Highlanders prepared the same ways they had throughout the second half of the season. Deviations from a six-game winning streak would rattle a team primed to complete their push for postseason play.

In an exclusive interview with The Woodlands Online Sports, Highlander Head Coach Ron Eastman explained his approach to the team given their delicate situation.

“We’ve had a really good approach the last month or so during practices,” said Eastman. “There hasn’t been much change. We try to treat every game like it’s a playoff game and it’s paid off.”

The work from during practice rewarded the Highlanders with a quick trip to the plate after sitting down all three of the first batters from Willis in a row.

A lead-off single from Kyle Hubert was a step in the right direction for The Woodlands, but a sensational swing from Declan Magee sent the ball over the centerfield wall for an immediate 2-0 lead.

With the bags freshly emptied, the Highlanders put on three more runners to load the bags with Brady Breedlove up to bat. Another ping of the bat brought home a third runner before a fielder’s choice allowed another runner to score, ending an eventful first inning with The Woodlands up 4-0.

Not wanting to let the game escape them too early, the Wildkats responded with some runs of their own in the top of the second.

Back-to-back walks allowed runners to reach first and second for Willis with none out. The walks were pushed into scoring position via a sacrifice bunt, but two outs made the situation more stressful for the Wildkat bats. Their stress was eased by a two-run RBI from Jorden Taylor, who cut the lead in half Highlander lead in half.

The Woodlands bats reignited to push the team further ahead in response to their lead being jeopardized. A single and walk went to second and third via a sacrifice bunt before Gian Fernandez’s confident swing brought the two runners home to push the lead to 6-2.

“We were ready to hit the fastball early,” said Eastman. “Declan [Magee] came up with the big home run and that had a lot of energy. I was really pleased with the effort.”

After their explosive exchange, both teams would go silent as the pitchers settled into their grooves.

Willis’ Austin Gaskins put a lid on the Highlander batters that troubled him in the early game by not allowing them to bring in another run through the next five innings.

Across the way, The Woodlands’ Erich Daigle maintained control of the game until the top of the fifth by striking out six Wildkat batters through 96 pitches. His only drawback was the considerable amount of walks he issued through the contest. The growing number of free bases issued by The Woodlands would haunt the team as the fifth inning began.

A lead-off double from Willis’ Zadin Cannon was only the start of a Highlander meltdown that surrendered the lead ahead of the final inning.

A lengthy series of walks, stolen bases, and wild throws from the Highlander infield resulted in the Wildkats sitting on loaded bases. Even with Daigle’s replacement, Tanner Farnsworth, pitching, the team could not escape the collapse when a three-run RBI double from Kelly Abke tied the game at six.

The quiet bats of the Highlanders remained as such through the bottom of the sixth and seventh innings, and the matchup with playoff implications was pushed into extra innings.

The Wildkats made the first step toward finishing the comeback when the team got Cannon aboard via another walk. Then, a bunt turned into a failed attempt to tag the pinch-running Tyler Brackenridge at third base. His blistering speed and the Woodlands' error, led to the Wildkats taking a 7-6 lead in the clutch.

Needing a response, The Woodlands batters stepped to the plate with an understood urgency to get at least a run to extend the game.

Unfortunately for the Wildkats, their sure-fire arm in Gaskins had reached the maximum number of pitches allowed for a starter, and he was subbed out to start the bottom of the eighth.

The Highlanders took advantage by getting two straight walks, a balk, and a bunt to load the bases and put pressure on the freshly inserted pitcher. Willis’ hopes were finally dashed by a line-drive grounder into right field by Tag Giles, whose two-run RBI clinched an 8-7 win for The Woodlands.

Giles’ swing not only knocks off the top team in the district but also secures a spot in the playoffs for the Highlanders, whose strength through adversity will join them to the postseason.

“This proves that they have some perseverance,” said Eastman. “We challenged them a month ago to make a playoff run and to not be the first Highlander team in 21 years to not make the playoffs. They decided not this year.”

These two teams will meet on Saturday at Willis to see who will climb or descend in the playoff standings of 13-6A.

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