By Rob Patrick
It turns out, the 7A-Central Conference was pretty good in baseball this year.
For a long time, no one knew for sure. There was the novelty of going into the final week of the regular season with a chance that all eight teams would finish tied with 8-8 records.It didn’t turn out that way but the fact that five teams tied for the conference title at 8-6 didn’t indicate anything that the teams were even.[more]
Then came the State tournament and Central teams went 6-1 against the West with the lone win coming when four-time defending State champion Fayetteville, as the third seed from its league (and a co-champion), eked out a 4-2 win over sixth-seeded Little Rock Central in the first round.
The final four was an all-Central affair with Conway, Little Rock Catholic, Van Buren and Bryant.
“The coaches in the league, we’d ask each other,” acknowledged Van Buren head coach David Loyd. “We didn’t know if any of us were good or if we just all weren’t very good. We didn’t really know because everything was so even, one through eight.
“I did know that our league had some good pitchers in it and they were very capable of shutting people down and you really had to step up and play every day or you were going to get beat,” he added. “I think that really prepared every team for the State tournament. I think that’s why the Central did so well.”
Loyd’s Pointers, the league's No. 4 seed despite their share of the title, will be playing the Bryant Hornets who are in their second year under the guidance of Kirk Bock, a former Van Buren head coach.
“I was there for five years before I went to Harrison,” Bock said. “So this means a little bit to me. I know a lot of those kids, I know a lot of those kids’ brothers, some of them I coached.”
It was a season of radical shifts for the Hornets. They won 15 of their first 16 including victories over three State finalists in other classifications, Lake Hamilton (6A), Monticello (5A) and Woodlawn (2A).
They went to Van Buren on April 1 after victories in their first two conference games. The Hornets jumped to a 5-0 lead in the top of the third inning then didn’t score again in the game. In what proved to be one of his most frustrating outings of the season, Bryant senior ace Ben Wells walked six and was knocked out of the game as much by his own pitch count as the Pointers. Van Buren came back to tie the game against Wells then scored four times in the bottom of the sixth to hand the Hornets their first league loss.
And the Pointers did it without using their ace, University of Arkansas-signee Brandon Moore, who’s been the proverbial horse for Van Buren for three years.
At that point, the Hornets went into a funk. The loss to the Pointers was the first in a string of seven in eight games including six in a row against conference foes.
Granted, every coach whose team played the Hornets during that stretch was wary about whether or not that night might be the one that saw Bryant snap out of it but it didn’t happen until April 24 at venerable old Lamar Porter Field. Bryant broke out with a 9-4 win over the Catholic Rockets, the second of three momentous wins over Catholic during the season.
The Hornets haven’t lost since. They take an eight-game win streak into Friday night’s championship game.
“Bryant’s a good team, a really solid team,” Loyd said. “Kirk always does a tremendous job. They pitch well, they defend well and they put the ball in play. They move runners around. I knew at some point that they were going to get going and get hot, and they did. So it’ll be a huge challenge for us. We understand it but, at the same time, we’re looking forward to it.”
“I think the work that we put in in the fall and all the way through spring break in the weight room, we always had that to fall back on,” Bock related. “As bad as things got, it never got as bad as that and the kids making it through that, just the mindset. It was pretty intense, all of our fall workouts. It’s real intense and it’s a gut-check. And we’ve had some gut-checks (during the season) and they could always fall back on that. I think that’s helped us out a lot.”
The Hornets came all the way back to nail down one of those five co-championships of the league and, by virtue of their winning margins (five-run max), they gained the top-seed from the league to State. They advanced to Friday’s finale by edging North Little Rock, 3-2, then Catholic, 1-0.
Loyd said that his team started off the season slowly but eventually started playing better ball. Though he didn’t mention it, there were a couple of key players on the team like catcher-pitcher Tyler Spoon that took awhile to get accustomed after finishing a successful basketball season. Spoon not only started at the point for the roundball squad, he was the starting quarterback in the fall for the Pointers football team.
Buoyed by their win over Bryant, the Pointers led the 7A-Central for a while. They were on top of the standings when they made their trip to Bryant on April 26, right on the heels of the Hornets’ season-turning win at Catholic.
Wells got another shot at the Pointers and the Hornets faced Moore for the first time this season. It was a classic in which Van Buren eked out a run in the first on a pair of two-out singles and an outfield error. Moore kept the Hornets shut out on just four hits through five innings but, in the sixth, Bryant got two on with one out and senior Brady Butler drove a 1-2 pitch to the fence in right for a two-run triple. Wells made it hold up for the victory, finishing with a four-hitter, walking just one and striking out 12 including eight straight at one point.
It was one of the best performances of the season by the Wells, capped perhaps only by his work in the State tourney win over North Little Rock.
Though he lost that game, Moore continued to lead the Pointers with one great performance after another including the win over Conway that clinched the team's trip to Fayetteville. He was also on the mound for Friday's opening win over Bentonville, 7-2. The Pointers clubbed Springdale Har-Ber, the top seed from the West, on Saturday, 10-6, behind Spoon's pitching and hitting.
“He’s been great for us but we’ve had a lot of other kids who have stepped up for us this year and played well,” Loyd said. “Without them, obviously, we wouldn’t be in this situation. It’s been a fun bunch of guys to coach. They really like to compete. They play really hard and it’s just been a lot of fun for me.”
“Dave’s done a great job at Van Buren,” Bock said. “He’s got them in position to win. He happens to have that one big arm and they can beat anybody.
“It’s going to be a great game,” he added. “I would think it’d be a low-scoring game but you never know what might happen. It just kind of depends on how each team plays defense. The pitching’s going to be solid on both sides.”
Both coaches have State titles on their resumes, both before they came to their current school. This is the first State baseball final for Van Buren, just the second for Bryant which lost to North Little Rock in the 2004 championship game. (A game, incidentally, in which Ben Wells’ brother Justin played in.)
“In 1986, when I was at Lavaca, we were able to win a State championship,” Loyd mentioned. “This will be my second time as a head baseball coach. I’ve been there three other times as an assistant in football. It’s always fun to play in the post-season. It’s always fun to have a good run. It really caps off your year so it’s really been an enjoyable spring.”
Bock led Harrison to a State title in 2008 before being hired at Bryant. The Harrison team included a sophomore outfielder, Garrett Bock, who is a senior on this Hornets team.
Asked if he could cull anything from that experience to pass along to this players in preparation for Friday’s challenge, Coach Bock said,
“I think every kid on the team has won a State championship before or a Regional championship,” Bock said, referring to the success of each class of players on the team as part of the Bryant Athletic Association youth leagues. “They’ve been in big games. The thing that we’ve talked about is just don’t let the stadium intimidate you, don’t let the fans who are going to be there — you know the crowd’s going to be a lot larger — or the media. It’s just another game.
“Obviously, there’s strings attached to this one but no more than was attached to the last one,” he added. “The last one, really that was a bigger game because if you don’t with that one you go home with nothing. We just need to treat it like it’s just another game and go on.”
Loyd answered, “These kids are mature kids. They understand what’s going on. We just want to go relax and just have fun and play, just play like we’ve been playing, don’t be trying to do more than we’ve been doing, just get out there and relax and enjoy the atmosphere, enjoy the moment.”
CLASS 7A STATE TOURNAMENT
At Burns Park, North Little Rock
Friday, May 14
Game 1 — Van Buren (16-11) (Central 4) 7, Bentonville (16-13) (West 5) 2 (Field 1)
Game 2 — North Little Rock (19-12) (Central 5) 10, Rogers (18-10) (West 4) 5 (Field 2)
Game 3 — Fayetteville (18-9) (West 3) 4, Little Rock Central (13-14) (Central 6) 2 (Field 1)
Game 4 — Little Rock Catholic (16-9) (Central 3) 4, Fort Smith Northside (12-16) (West 6) 3 (Field 2)
Saturday, May 15
Game 5 — Van Buren (17-11) 10, Springdale Har-Ber (18-11) (West 1) 6 (Field 2)
Game 6 — Bryant (22-8) (Central 1) 3, North Little Rock (20-12) 2 (Field 1)
Game 7 — Conway (20-8) (Central 2) 12, Fayetteville (19-9) 2 (Field 2)
Game 8 — Little Rock Catholic (17-9) 3, Rogers Heritage (23-7) (West 2) 2 (Field 1)
Monday, May 17
Game 9 — Van Buren (18-11) 12, Conway (21-8) 1 (Field 1)
Game 10 — Bryant (23-8) 1, Little Rock Catholic (18-9) 0 (Field 1)
Friday, May 21
At Baum Stadium, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Game 11 — Bryant (24-8) vs. Van Buren (19-11), 7 p.m.