Photos courtesy of Paul Dotson
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Evan Lee fired a three-hit shutout over five innings and, for the second day in a row, came through with a two-run triple as the Bryant Hornets eliminated the Springdale Har-Ber Wildcats, 10-0, on Saturday at the 7A State Tournament at Burns Park.
For the fifth time in the last seven years, the Hornets will be playing for the Class 7A championship. Of those previous four, Bryant won three; all at the University of Arkansas’ Baum Stadium in Fayetteville where they’ll be playing Conway, a Central Conference rival this Friday at 5:30 p.m. In 2011, Bryant made it to the finals and lost to the Wampus Cats when the title game was held at UCA in Conway.
On Saturday, Conway and Little Rock Catholic, another Central Conference team, battled 11 innings, 8-7.
Incidentally, in each of Bryant’s previous championship seasons, the tournament was held at Burns Park before heading to Baum.
“I tell you, these kids they fight through it now,” said Hornets head coach Kirk Bock, who has guided the program to the unprecedented success. “It’s a good group of kids.”
Asked what the formula has been, the coach answered, “Athletes — kids that have bought in and they work hard with a blue-collar mentality. It’s treated us well for the last seven years.
In the win over Har-Ber, Garrett Misenheimer and Aaron Orender each had two hits. Misenheimer drove in the first run in the opening frame then ended the game with an RBI single in the fifth that made it a 10-after-five run-rule game.
The game was tight early, just 1-0 through three but the Hornets broke out with five runs in the fourth keyed by Dylan Hurt’s clutch two-out, two-run double followed by Lee’s triple. They added four more in the fifth to close it out.
Lee’s shutout came on the heels of Zach Jackson’s blanking of Cabot on three hits on Friday. Lee fanned eight and walked no one.
Har-Ber threatened in the first. Tyler Blackston reached on a tough error, a bad-hop grounder to Misenheimer at third. Blaze Brothers sacrificed him to second then Brady Patrick beat out a single to the hole at short.
With runners at first and third, Patrick stole, as cleanup hitter Brandon Still became Lee’s first strikeout victim. And when Misenheimer made a nice play on Caleb Kimbel’s chopper, the Hornets had avoided the trouble.
In the home half, the first pitch from Har-Ber right-hander Michael King hit Logan Allen. It was the first of four times the Hornets were plunked. Dylan Hurt followed with a hard grounder to third where Caleb Grace fielded the ball. But his throw to second was wild as he tried to get a force.
The first of five wild pitches by King advanced the runners to second and third for Misenheimer who stroked a liner over the second baseman’s head for an RBI single.
The Hornets threatened to get more but Jordan Gentry’s hot shot just inside third was knocked down by Grace preventing a run-scoring hit. Alex Shurtleff, running for Hurt had to hold at third.
King worked out of the inning forcing the Hornets to leave the bags loaded but it was important to gain an early lead, Bock acknowledged.
“That was huge,” he said. “It would’ve helped us out a lot yesterday if we’d gotten something that in the first inning.”
In the 4-0 win over Cabot on Friday, the Hornets stranded a runner at third in the opening frame and the game was tense and scoreless until the fifth.
“It gave me some confidence,” Lee said. “I had a little wiggle room but I was confident when it was 0-0 that my defense — I was just going to have (Har-Ber) put it in play and let my defense work; fill it up, throw a bunch of strikes; and that’s what I did.
“From the start I had all three of my pitches,” he mentioned. “I used all three of them and just let my defense work. They were all successful.”
“I’m glad he was confident with that (1-0 lead),” Bock quipped. “I wasn’t. But it’s kind of like Zach too. Their mentality is, ‘Get me a run, get me a lead and I’m going to take control.’ And for those two cats, it’s worked out pretty good for them this year.
“It takes a lot of pressure off the offense when you’ve got a couple of guys that can hold everybody else at bay,” he added.”
Blake Adams led off the Wildcats’ second with a single. Grace sacrificed him to second and he went to third when Remington Self struck out on a pitch in the dirt. Josh Thompson’s grounder to Aaron Orender at first ended the inning with Adams at third.
King settled in and worked around a leadoff walk to Seth Tucker in the second.
The first bit of controversy in the game came in the top of the third. Blackston singled up the middle to bring up Brothers. On an 0-1 curve, Brothers was fooled so badly that he swung awkwardly and late. Initially, however, he was awarded first base due to catcher’s interference. Bock asked for the plate umpire to check with his colleagues in the field and the call was overturned, presumably because it looked like Brothers may have tried to tip Hurt’s mitt intentionally.
Despite protests from the Har-Ber fans and head coach Ron Bradley, Brothers, who had moved to first, was ordered back to the batter’s box and Blackston was put back on first.
To add insult to injury, Brothers wound up striking out on a pitch in the dirt. Hurt, alertly pounced on the ball and fired to second to nail Blackston. Brothers tried to stay at first but, with first base occupied, he wasn’t allowed to go to first. The result was a doubleplay.
That started a stretch in which Lee retired the last eight in a row to close out the game, six on strikes. He fanned the side in the top of the fourth when it was still just 1-0.
“If you’re going to get him, you better get him early because as he keeps going he just gets stronger and stronger,” Bock said. “I thought he did a tremendous job.”
The Hornets’ game-breaking fourth began with Jake East getting robbed of extra bases on a drive to left-center that Kimbel chased down. Orender followed with a grounder to the middle that Blackston, the Wildcats’ shortstop, knocked down but couldn’t make a play on.
Orender stole second then Tucker drew a walk. With Joey Cates trying to bunt them over, King unleashed another wild pitch to do the job for him. Cates worked the count to 2-2 then was struck, taking first to load the bases with the top of the order due up.
For the second time in two days, Allen was plunked to pick up an RBI. The pitch hit him on the plastic protective guard on his upper arm resulting in a sound that made Bradley and the Wildcats’ faithful believe that the ball had hit the knob of Allen’s bat. After a conference among the umpires again, the protest was denied and Bryant led 2-0.
With tensions still high, Hurt turned on a 1-1 pitch and rifled it inside the third-base bag for a two-run double to make it 4-0. Lee’s jolt to the fence in center came next, plating Allen and Shurtleff. And when the ball got away from Thompson, the Har-Ber catch on the relay, Lee tried to score. But King was close enough to the plate that he took a throw from Thompson and tagged him out.
But it was 6-0 at that point.
“It clicked for us a little at times offensively,” Bock said. “We made some timing (adjustments) but for the most part, the kids just relaxed. It was a big game for them.”
“I hit a fastball,” recounted Lee. “He just laid one in there. It was an 0-1 count. He had thrown me a change-up but had been coming back with a fastball. I just stayed on it and drove one.”
Bryant’s fifth began with a walk to Gentry. He scored all the way from first when East plugged the gap in left-center for a double. He took third on a wild pitch and scored on Orender’s second hit of the day.
Tucker was nipped by a pitch, much to the protests of the Wildcat faithful who felt that one of their players had been nicked earlier in the game only to be denied.
The fifth continued with Cates’ sacrifice, which led to a pitching change. King gave way to Fuller Chandler, who managed to get one out before unleashing a wild pitch that allowed Orender to score, making it 9-0.
Lee was awarded first on an intentional pass to load the bases for Misenheimer who drilled a 2-2 pitch to center to finish off the rout.