By Rob Patrick
RUSSELLVILLE — Here’s the weird thing about being a defending State champion with almost everybody back:[more]
You beat a conference opponent 10-0 and there’s disappointment.
That’s what happened to the Bryant Lady Hornets on Tuesday when they defeated the Russellville Lady Cyclones by that margin at Hickey Park.
It’s a Russellville team that won a Class 7A State Tournament game last year and will likely reach the Class 6A State Tournament this year.
The thing is, of course, that the Lady Hornets are contending with the expectations of themselves and everyone else. And, along those lines, it’s really easy to feel, whether they want to or not, that the season doesn’t really begin for them until the State tournament starts.
The challenge is to attain and maintain consistent effort, emotion and intensity while avoiding the development of bad habits and the tendency to play along and play along then turn it on when you need to like the proverbial light switch.
Because sometimes you can flip the switch, the bulb blows out and you get burned.
“I was really anticipating what this year was going to be like,” stated Lady Hornets coach Debbie Clark. “I’ve never coached a defending State championship team. There’s not a book out there to refer to, that’ll tell you what to do. So I’m trying to take everything day by day too. I know people have said, ‘Oooo, three losses . . .’”
Yes, the Lady Hornets are 11-3 after going 26-2 last year but, even for defending State champs, every season is different and, though it gets lost in the mix sometimes, every win is still precious.
Through four innings of Tuesday’s game, it was scoreless. The Lady Hornets had managed just two hits against the Lady Cyclones and pitcher Darian Simmons. The Bryant batters seemed anxious, ready to get the rout started. Simmons needed just 32 pitches to get through those four frames.
She would need 30 to get through the fifth, however.
And it was the bottom of the Bryant order that got the team’s breakout inning going. Cassidy Wilson, who had two hits in the game, singled down the third-base line then Ashley Chaloner came up with the assignment to get a sacrifice bunt down. She fouled off a couple of pitches but then squared and pulled back on four out of the zone for a walk. On the next pitch, Carly Yazza got the bunt down for the sacrifice, moving the runners to second and third for ninth-place hitter, freshman Katy Stillman. With the count 2-2, Stillman lashed a drive to right-center to break up the scoreless game. He double drove in two.
The top of the order took it from there. Jenna Bruick singled off the Simmons’ glove then stole second. Hannah Rice worked a walk when that was the last thing Simmons wanted to do with Jessie Taylor, who leads the team and probably the state, in home runs, due up next.
And, sure enough, on an 0-1 delivery, Taylor hit a high drive to straight-away center. Though it didn’t look like she got all of it, she muscled it just beyond the fence for a grand slam and a 6-0 lead.
Meanwhile, Bryant pitcher Payton Jenkins was twirling a three-hit shutout, striking out 11 with three walks and a hit batter. Russellville’s only serious threat came in the fourth when Kayla Sisco’s liner to center got down and skipped past Hannah Rice. But when Megan Hale tried to sacrifice, Jenkins pounced on the bunted ball and rifled a throw to Wilson covering third to retire the lead runner. With two out and Hale runner from first on an 0-2 count, Jenkins pitch was in the dirt. Taylor scooped it and fired to second trying to nab Hale while, with two out, the batter, Courtney Norman, reached first after futilely swinging at the pitch.
Moments later, with Whitley Atkins at the plate, Hale and Norman worked a double steal to put runners at second and third. But Jenkins nabbed Atkins’ comebacker and threw to first to end the inning.
Jenkins worked around a walk and a single in the sixth.
Going into the seventh, Clark, who challenges her team to score one run per inning, reminded them they needed one more.
They got four.
A two-out error that allowed Hannah Rice to reach base opened the door. Taylor singled past the shortstop then Jenkins drew a walk from lefty reliever Sydney Rupe. With the sacks jammed, Kayla Sory bounced a single up the middle to drive in a run then Wilson smashed a liner to left for a double that cleared the bases and completed the scoring.
Jenkins pitched around a one-out double that Yazza nearly tracked down and a two-out walk to complete the shutout.
The game was the first for the Lady Hornets since they returned from a tournament in Tennessee on March 26, due to a couple of rainouts. Now 2-0 in conference play, they host Conway on Thursday then entertain Sylvan Hills on Friday in a break from league action.