Winning a state championship immortalizes a team forever, but winning two solidifies them as a dynasty.
For the Highland School baseball team, repeating is the goal after the Hawks captured their first VISAA Division II state title in school history last season.
Featuring seven players from Prince William County, Highland’s title defense has been a home run so far. At 23-5, Highland is the No. 1 seed in the state tournament and advanced to the semifinals following their 5-1 win over The Covenant School in the quarterfinals on Tuesday.
“They look at it as a different challenge (this season) because we're a different team. We graduated eight seniors,” said 12th year coach Micah Higgins. “But I think this team has got all the pieces.”
Although Highland is located in Warrenton, half of the Hawks’ 22-man roster comes from outside Fauquier County.
“I wanted to come over to a school with a lot of competition. I wanted to face the best of the best,” said Highland’s slugging right fielder Kehler Hamilton, who lives in Haymarket and left Battlefield High for the baseball experience he’s getting at Highland.
“This team is super close, we are surrounded by great coaches and all of us are great players. It's been the best decision I made. It’s awesome,” said Hamilton, a junior who has committed to play at Elon University in the Colonial Athletic Association.
“As far as ‘recruiting,’ I tell everyone our program recruits itself,” says Higgins. “Our success of developing and sending players to play at the next level along with playing 30-35 games a year against high level competition across the East Coast attracts top student-athletes from our region.”
Finishing 29-2 a year ago, the Hawks capped off the best season in school history with a 10-7 victory over Greenbrier Christian Academy in the state final last May. The championship had been a long time coming as it was their third straight trip to the state finals, previously losing to Greenbrier in 2021 and Miller School of Albemarle in 2019.
Higgins has a deep arsenal of pitchers, including Prince William’s Stephen Christopher and Hamilton and Fauquier’s John Noah Lukonis, Owen Winebarger and Weston Lillard.
Highland’s projected No. 1 starter and junior William & Mary commit Brennen Card has been out since mid-March with an arm injury, but Lukonis and Winebarger have carried the load.
Lukonis, a senior Randolph Macon College signee, is a veteran right-hander who leads the team in wins with a 7-1 record. Leading the Hawks in appearances out of the bullpen last year, Winebarger is a junior left-handed workhorse who has converted to a starter to lead the Hawks with 42.2 innings pitched.
Hamilton is Higgins’ most versatile player as he is the closer and starts in right field. With a fastball that can reach 90 MPH, the Elon commit has been lights out on the mound as he has allowed just one run in 20 innings pitched for a team-leading 0.35 ERA.
“I just want to hit the zone, work with my catcher, and hit the mitt,” Hamilton said. “If I pound the zone and hit the spots that I want to hit, then I know that my fielders will get my back.”
Christopher, a Virginia Tech commit, and Lillard are two impactful relievers. Higgins said of Lillard, “He's a kid that's really just starting to kind of come into his own and make himself known within the state and within the East Coast, and we're excited about his future.”
Behind the plate, sophomores Justin Summers and Benjy Cardone share the catching duties. Summers, a University of Dayton commit, starts most nights with Cardone playing frequently at second base.
Sophomore Luke Craddock plays first base while junior Jonah Carlson splits time with Cardone at second. Craddock, an East Carolina University commit, bats fourth and leads the team with 33 RBI.
The shortstop is sophomore Joey Rogers, a returnee who started at short for much of their title-winning season as a freshman and bats second. Rounding out the infield is senior Ryan Gimbel at third, an Eastern Mennonite signee who typically bats sixth.
As for the outfield, sophomore Brooks Graham starts in left field and bats fifth where his .419 batting average leads the team. Patrolling center field is the senior leadoff hitter Blagen Pado, who signed with Longwood University.
Playing in right field is Hamilton, who bats third. A slugger, Hamilton is tied with Craddock for the team lead in home runs with four and is second with 26 RBI.
“If you go up with the right approach, it can help you in a lot of ways. So, I go up with just staying simple, don’t try to crush the ball,” Hamilton said. “If I just stay simple, I can just let the speed of the pitcher and my strength do the work.”
Needing two more wins to repeat as state champions, Highland is on the doorstep of immortality.
“We can't get ahead of ourselves. We have to play our ball, not try to do too much. Just play for us as a team,” Hamilton said. “We would say the Hawk way. Just play the Hawk way.”
Highland faces No. 4 Steward School on Friday in the semifinals at Shepherd Stadium in Colonial Heights. The final is Saturday at 2 p.m. Should both Highland and No. 2 seed Greenbriar win their semis, it would create a rematch of the last two state finals.
Reach Matthew Proctor at email@example.com
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