BENTONVILLE — With their conference opener looming, the Bryant Hornets baseball team returned from their annual trip to Waco, Texas, reeling a little bit.
Or maybe more than a little bit.
An inexperienced team that had already undergone adversity by then, was off to a 2-4 start to the 2017 season including three losses in four games in Waco.
To say that there was some concern may be an understatement. Through six games, the Hornets had already lost more than they had in a season since 2013. There were those who wondered if perhaps the Hornets’ run of 10 consecutive trips to State might be in jeopardy or that the team might struggle to post a winning record on the season. It’s been more than 25 years since a Bryant baseball team had lost more than it won.
But, as has been the mark of the Bryant program, the team and coaches went to work to make sure those things didn’t happen.
Little did anyone suspect then but that hard work would get the Hornets to the Class 7A State Tournament semifinals.
But that’s where they were on Saturday, squaring off against 7A-Central Conference rival (and regular-season champion) Cabot, a senior-laden team which was striving to be the first from Cabot to ever play for a State title in baseball.
Unfortunately, the Hornets had used a lot of pitching to get there. They’d just missed earning a first-round bye, finishing third in league play instead of second.
As the league champs, Cabot’s Panthers got one of those byes and had fresh experienced arms ready to go.
“That’s why the bye is so important,” acknowledged Hornets first-year head coach Travis Queck. “It puts you in a better spot to make that run. That’s what helped them out.”
In fact, of the four State crowns and five berths in the finals, no Bryant team did it without a bye.
So the 2017 Hornets were up against it a little bit after ousting Springdale 1-0 on Thursday and out-lasting host Bentonville on Friday, 9-8.
Though no doubt headed for plenty of success on the mound in the future, three of the four pitchers the Hornets used in the semifinals with Cabot, had only limited or no work in varsity games this season, much less one of the best hitting teams in the state in the pressure of a State semifinal, a game away from playing for a title at Baum Stadium.
Though the Hornets hit well, particularly against Cabot senior starter Brett Brockinton, they just couldn’t keep up with the Panthers who scored crooked numbers in every inning on the way to a 14-4 run-rule win.
The Hornets’ Cinderella story struck midnight. They finished the season 20-10 as the BHS careers of seniors Beaux Bonvillain, Boston Heil, Seth Tucker, Cameron Coleman and Diego Vargas concluded.
“These seniors, they provided the leadership for us all year,” Queck said. “We always counted on Beaux and that guy was a rock, a constant throughout the year, kept everything steady. He and Seth who we had at the top of the lineup and playing everywhere for us, also on the mound. The guy was just full of energy. And you’ve got Cam and all the seniors. They led the way for us this year.
“These sophomores learned a lot this year, through experience, trials and tribulations,” he noted after the game. “But moving forward, it’s good for us. But right now, it just doesn’t feel good.”
In the loss, the Hornets trio of sophomores who bat 3-4-5 in the lineup, Jake Wright, Logan Chambers and Coby Greiner combined for 8 hits in 9 at-bats. For the tournament, they combined to go 16 of 30.
But the Hornets haven’t been able to get Cabot lead-off man Blake McCutchen out the last two times the teams faced. On Saturday, he was 4 for 4. On April 27 when Bryant won at Cabot, McCutchen was also 4 for 4, accounting for all of his team’s hits. He was 0 for 3 in the Panthers’ 3-2 win at Bryant on April 4.
In Saturday’s setback, the Hornets took a first-inning lead. Tucker walked and, with one out, the sophomore trio cracked base hits with Greiner picked up the RBI. Bryant had the bases loaded and just one out but, after a visit from his coach, Brockinton fanned the next two to keep it 1-0.
The Panthers’ offensive outburst began with consecutive singles by McCutchen and Clayton Gray in the home half. Greiner fanned Denver Mullins then made a nice play himself on a swinging bunt up the third-base line by Dillon Thomas.
The Bryant right-hander got a strike in on the next batter Houston King, but Cabot’s freshman sensation reached out and slapped a soft liner to left-center for a two-run single. An error on a tough play at short allowed King to score before Konnor Clontz robbed Evan Hooper of a hit with a diving stop in the hole to end the inning.
Down 3-1, the Hornets managed only a two-out single by Tucker in the second. He stole second but was stranded.
In the bottom of the second, Greiner got the first out on a fly to Tucker in center but then Kyler Franks singled, McCutchen doubled him home and Gray singled to make it 5-1.
Heil relieved and was greeted by Mullins with a slicing single to right that got Gray in. Mullins took second when the ball was misplaying in the outfield, then advanced to third on a balk.
But Heil set down the next two to keep it 6-1.
The Hornets’ resilience became evident in the top of the third. Wright singled and Vargas, on as a courtesy runner, moved to second on a wild pitch and to third on Chambers’ grounder to the right side. Greiner singled him in.
With two down, Matthew Sandidge burned the Panthers’ centerfielder Hooper, legging out a triple that scored Greiner to make it 6-3. Brandon Hoover walked to bring up the potential tying run in Clontz, who tied into a 2-1 delivery but the long fly to left was caught by King to end the threat.
The Hornets wound up stranding nine in the game.
Cabot made it three runs in each of the first three innings by taking advantage of an error, a hit batsman and, after a pitching change, a squeeze bunt that worked. McCutchen singled then Gray doubled in two, expanding the lead to 9-3 before Myers Buck got Mullins to pop to Scott Schmidt at second to end the uprising.
The Hornets responded with a run in the top of the fourth but missing a chance once again to get more. With two down, Wright beat out an infield hit that resulted in an errant throw to first. With Wright at second, Chambers singled him in. Greiner crushed a liner off the ankle of Cabot reliever Michael Shepherd. But unfazed, Shepherd ended the threat right there with a strikeout.
Hooper and McCutchen each had two-run singled as Cabot expanded the margin to 13-4 in the bottom of the fourth.
Shepherd pitched around a two-out single by Clontz in the top of the fifth then the Panthers walked it off after Thomas opened the home fifth with a double. Sophomore Logan Catton, the fourth Bryant pitcher, got King to bounce out to short as pinch-runner Austin Garrett took third.
With that being the potential game-ending run, Queck had Bobby Duncan and Hooper intentionally walked to load the bases and set up a force at any of them, in hopes of turning an inning-ending doubleplay. But Eric Larson singled in Garrett to end it there.