It’s fun to think that, since it’s an even year, the Bryant Hornets are going to win the Class 7A State baseball championship. After all, the Hornets won it all in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Kinda like the San Francisco Giants and the World Series.
And it could happen. And the Hornets are set to begin the journey this evening with a pre-season benefit game at Hot Springs Lakeside, weather permitting.
But when the State tournament is a single-elimination tournament, one off day can oust the best team in the state as well as a mediocre one. As proof, you don’t have to look any further than last year when a tremendous Bryant team went 28-2 in the regular season only to lose in the quarterfinals in a stunner to Rogers Heritage.
A lot of good things have to fall into place.
“We talk about things like that,” said Hornets head coach Kirk Bock who’s been at the helm for each of those State titles plus a runner-up finish in 2011, a final four appearance in 2013, and quarterfinal finishes in 2007 as well as 2015. “We try to motivate kids that way. But so much goes into winning it.
“Do we think we’re going to win? Absolutely,” he continued. “We think we’re going to win every game. We think we’re going to be State champs. We think we’re going to be National champs. And that’s the way we’re preparing ourselves.”
Pitching is always key and, in that regard, the 2016 Hornets are well positioned. The staff is led by two guys that have already signed with the University of Arkansas, Evan Lee and Zach Jackson. Lee, a lefty, has been named a pre-season Louisville Slugger All-American and is considered the top prospect in the state. He stars as a pitcher and a hitter. In addition, Alex Shurtleff, a signee with Harding University, returns.
Lee went 5-0 with a 1.29 earned run average last season, fanning 39 in 32.2 innings. Jackson, who was out after Tommy John surgery, helped out late in the season and won a game, fanning 9 and allowing just two hits in seven innings of work after serving as a conference starter as a sophomore in 2014 and earning a victory during the run to the State title.
Shurtleff was 6-0 last spring with an 0.65 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 32.1 innings.
“Pitching, we have some experience,” Bock acknowledged. “It gives us a chance. You’ve still got to score some runs and you’ve still got to stop those dudes but when Zach and Evan and Shurt and Beaux (Bonvillain) and (Ty) Medford are around the zone, they’re tough.
“Zach and Evan are Zach and Evan,” he continued. “They’ve done really, really well for us. Shurtleff was doing good until he had this mishap where he slid into first base and hurt his finger on his throwing hand. So he hasn’t been able to do anything. He’ll be re-evaluated after his rehab in two weeks and hopefully be released.
“Beaux has done a really good job from the left side. He’s not going to throw it past anybody but he does a good job of throwing it around them and just keeping you off stride.”
“Medford is really coming on. He looked great last Wednesday. (Christian) Harp and Boston Heil both did a really good job (Thursday). If Boston can throw strikes, then he’s tough to hit. Austin Kelly, when he’s on, he’s really good. He still struggles a little bit finding repeatable mechanics, so he can locate. But once it clicks in for him, he does a great job. That’s just inexperience. The more times he gets out there, the better he’s going to be.”
Bock said the plan is to give several of his pitchers some work at Lakeside.
“We’re going to throw multiple arms at them,” he said. “It’ll just be good to play someone else. I think they’re sick and tired of playing themselves. We’ve been doing our short games, which is an intersquad, for probably five or six weeks. So they’re ready to go against somebody else.
“Defensively and hitting, we’re not necessarily young, we’re inexperienced,” the coach related. “That’s one of the reasons why we do these short games so they can get some experience and don’t have to play their way into it.
“And it’s just like any other inexperienced club, some days you look really, really good; some days you just look okay. I don’t know that we’ve really looked bad.”
Dylan Hurt, a senior who stepped in at shortstop last season, will move to his number one position at catcher this spring. He’ll work in tandem with senior Jordan Gentry, Bock said.
At first, seniors Aaron Orender and Joey Cates are in position to start. Sophonmore Christian Harp and junior Garrett Misenheimer are working at third base.
“Our middle infielders, we have a slew of guys that are interchangeable,” Bock mentioned. “We’ve got (Seth) Tucker and (Myers) Buck and (Scott) Schmidt, (Jake) East, (Konnor) Clontz and (Jeffrey) Hastings. Those six guys have been taking the majority of the reps for us up the middle. Each one of them brings a little something different and I think it’s going to come down to who’s swinging it the best.”
Tucker, East, Contz and Hastings are juniors while Buck and Schmidt are sophomores.
Lee, Kelly, Shurtleff and senior Logan Allen are in position to start in the outfield along with junior Cameron Coleman, who’s been limited by an ankle injury. Also, freshman Coby Greiner and sophomore Matthew Sandidge were mentioned by Bock.
“Defensively, those guys have been doing a good job,” he said. “CC hasn’t been out there but, offensively, he’s doing good. He should be cleared soon. So he’s going to be a little bit behind defensively but, offensively, he’s been doing everything with us except for running.
“The most consistent guys we have are Allen, Lee, Hurt, Misenheimer, East and Cates,” the coach said. “Gentry’s been hurt but he’s been swinging it really well at times.
“We’ve got those four or five guys that bring it to the dish every day, which is good,” Bock said. “We’re searching for those other three, four or five guys that can start doing that and we haven’t found those guys yet — while still keeping up the defense.”
The coach added, “We’ve had some freshman that I think are going to contribute at the varsity level somewhere along this year, (Jake) Wright and (Logan) Chambers. Wright, by the time he graduates, he’s certainly going to be one of the better hitters we’ve ever had. He may not be the best but that dude right there is going to be able to swing it one day. I think Chambers will also.
“Also a freshman that has come along well on the mound is Will McEntire,” Bock said. “He’s going to be pretty good one day. He reminds me a lot of (former Hornets ace) Nate (Rutherford). He doesn’t quite have that movement but I think he’s going to have that body type. He’s straight over the top so he’s not going to have a slider that he goes to but his breaking ball — and once he starts getting a feel for his pitches, he’s going to be pretty good for us. He’s certainly a guy that I think’s going to be in the mix for some of these mid-week (non-conference) games that we have to play.”
The Hornets will officially open the 2016 season on Monday, Feb. 29, at home against the Arkadelphia Badgers. On Tuesday, March 1, they’ll host Lakeside in a regular-season game. For the full schedule, go here.
The team will make its annual trek to Waco, Texas for the Midway Classic the weekend of March 10-12. During Spring Break, they’ll return to Tampa, Fla., for a week full of varsity and junior varsity contests. Play in the 7A/6A-Central Conference begins April 1 with a double-header at Greenwood.
“I think, in time, we’ve got a chance to be pretty good,” Bock concluded. “That time’s got to occur between now and next week. We’ve got to be where we need to be.”
Here are the 2015 statistics with the returning players in boldface: