Dramatic comeback helps Hornets claim third straight conference crown, top seed
EDITOR’S NOTE: In this time of COVID-19, with no sports action, BryantDaily.com will be posting past stories of Bryant athletics either posted on BryantDaily.com (from 2009 to the present) or published in the Bryant Times (from 1998 to 2008).
By Rob Patrick
Photos by Kevin Nagle
Lucas Castleberry did it again.
And because he did, the Bryant Hornets[more] did it again as well.
Coming into Thursday’s final 7A/6A-Central Conference doubleheader, Castleberry, a senior, had been a phenomenal 4 of 5 with three runs batted in as a pinch-hitter this season for the Hornets. And, with two outs in the bottom of the seventh of the first game against the Little Rock Catholic Rockets, after the Hornets had rallied from a 2-0 deficit to tie the game, head coach Kirk Bock turned to his secret weapon once more.
With Evan Jobe, the potential game-winning run at second after a double, Castleberry laced a 2-1 delivery from Rockets reliever Conner Gilmore for a single to center, giving Bryant a walk-off win, 3-2.
With that, the Hornets clinched at least a share of their third straight conference championship. And, though they were knocked off by the Rockets, 7-4, in the second game, when North Little Rock rallied to beat Conway 10-9 in extra innings to earn a split at Burns Park, the crown was solely Bryant’s.
It may be the first time that Bryant has won three conference championships in a row (though it may have happened in 1993-95). In 2009, the Hornets won the league outright. Last year, they were part of a five-way tie for first.
Also, for the third consecutive year, the Hornets will be the No. 1 seed from the Central at the Class 7A State Tournament, which will be held in Fort Smith. They will begin defense of their State title at the Evans Boys Club field at noon on Saturday, May 14, against the survivor of a first-round matchup between the fifth seed from the Central (Cabot, Central or North Little Rock) and the fourth seed from the West (Har-Ber, Rogers, Northside or Southside), which will be played Friday, May 13, at noon.
In the meantime, the Hornets, now 20-6 overall and 10-4 in league play, have non-conference games today and on Monday. This evening at 5, they take on the defending Class 5A runner-up Monticello. Monday will be Senior Night when they host defending Class 6A State champion Lake Hamilton at 5 p.m.
As for the title-clinching win on Friday, Castleberry topped off a dramatic comeback for the Hornets. Entering the bottom of the seventh, Catholic right-hander Taylor Wallace had Bryant shutout on just one hit. That one hit belonged to Landon Pickett, a sharp single to right with two out in the bottom of the fourth. Pickett led off the seventh and, after fouling off a pair of two-strike deliveries, blasted an opposite-field homer to give his team hope.
Dylan Cross followed with a liner down the left-field line for a double and, with Marcus Wilson on to pinch-run, Chris Joiner got down a sacrifice bunt to put the tying run at third with just one out. Josh Pultro did his job with a long drive to right for a sacrifice fly, knotting the score at 2.
With the bases empty, Jobe was down 0-2 in the count but kept the inning alive with a bouncer down the third-base line that clipped the bag and rolled into the outfield. Hustling all the way, he slid into second with a double.
Wallace, after being just a strike away from getting out of the inning, gave way to Gilmore as Castleberry came to the plate.
“Coming off the bench, he may be one of the best I’ve ever had,” Bock said of Castleberry. “He does a tremendous job. He’s got a knack for it and I think one reason that he does is that he stays tuned in to the ballgame. He knows what the pitcher’s throwing and he knows how to read pitchers.
“Landon got us rolling with that home run,” he added. “It put a chink in that dude’s armor. Once we poked a little hole in it right there, everybody else could make him bleed.
“It was great,” Bock asserted. “They let us hang around there. We had hit the ball, it was just right at them a lot. We only struck out three times. But the kids showed a lot of dad-gum poise and character right there. They did a great job. That was great baseball.”
Jordan Taylor went all the way on the mound for Bryant to get the win. He and Wallace were locked into a scoreless duel for five innings. Like the Catholic hurler, Taylor had only given up one hit, an infield single by Nick Battisto in the second.
In the sixth, however, Drew Price slapped a one-out single to left. Leadoff man Nick Rougeau tried to sacrifice but popped up his bunt and Bryant catcher Hayden Lessenberry hustled back to grab it for the second out.
Taylor and the Rockets’ Allen Mays then engaged in a battle. Mays spoiled a pair of tough 1-2 pitches, fouling them off before pulling a single into right to drive in Price with the game’s first run.
Wallace worked around a one-out walk to Tyler Nelson in the bottom of the inning to keep it 1-0.
In the top of the seventh, Taylor retired the first two batters and, again, was a strike away from ending the inning before Michael Haun stroked a single to right. On the next pitch, Rockets’ catcher Logan Wewers split the gap in right-center. Though he missed first base and had to go back, Haun was able to gallop home to make it 2-0.
Mason McKay followed with a bloop single to right-center then Drew Price walked to load the bases for Rougeau who launched a long fly to center that Pultro tracked down to end the inning.
That set the stage for Bryant’s scintillating rally.
“Obviously, we needed a split to win (the conference championship) and we got it,” Bock said. “It certainly took the pressure off of us in the second game. We just had a letdown early in the second game.”
To their credit, the Rockets, after seeing their hopes for a share of the conference title dashed with the opening loss, came out with some fire in the second contest and built a 5-0 lead in the first two innings.
Rougeau provided the spark with a double to start the game. An out later, Blaine Tanner singled him home. A long double by Matt Morris chased in Tanner to make it 2-0 before Bryant starter Caleb Milam retired the next two to strand Morris at third.
In the second, Milam fanned Wewers but a scratch hit by McKay and a walk on a 3-2 pitch to Price set the table for Rougeau who drilled a three-run homer to right-center to make it 5-0.
In turn, Rockets’ starter Andrew Mashburn was working his way out of jams in the first two frames as the Hornets struggled to muster a hit in the clutch. Taylor singled with two out in the first and stole second only to be stranded. In the second, Castleberry singled up the middle and Joiner place a bunt perfectly for a hit. Pultro sacrificed them to second and third. With two out, Lessenberry pounded a 3-1 delivery to deep center field. Rougeau tracked it and made a splendid play to rob the Bryant sophomore of extra bases and a pair of RBIs.
Dylan Cross, who had relieved for the Hornets in the second, shut the Rockets out on three hits over the next three innings allowing the Hornets to whittle on the lead.
Tyler Brown drew a walk with one out in the home third. With two down, Pickett singled and Castleberry beat out an infield hit to load the bases for Joiner, who came through with a two-run single up the middle.
The Hornets, who stranded 10 in the game, left a pair on in the inning as Pultro’s fly ball to center hung up for Rougeau to haul in to end the frame.
In the fourth, Lessenberry was hit by a pitch with one out and Nelson slashed a single to left, bringing an end to Mashburn’s time on the mound. Gilmore, who had thrown four pitches at the end of the first game — including the one that Castleberry hit for the game-winner — was called upon again and proceeded to get out of the jam, getting the third out on Taylor’s liner to Mays in left.
The Hornets scratched out a run to cut the margin to 5-3 in the bottom of the fifth. Pickett, on a checked swing, was hit by a pitch, though the Rockets’ coaches protested, contending that the ball had hit the bat and not his arm. The ruling stood, however, and Castleberry sacrificed Pickett to second. On a wild pitch, Pickett took off for third only to have the ball ricochet off the concrete at the base of the backstop right back to Wewers. But the Catholic catcher rushed a throw to third and it was beyond the reach of Morris, allowing Pickett to sprint home.
But Gilmore retired the next two including Pultro to end the inning on a sparkling play by Morris at third.
With their lead down to 5-3, the Rockets answered in the top of the sixth. Price and Mays singled and Tanner drilled a two-run triple. Though he was picked off third by Cross who then struck out Morris, the hill for the Hornets had just gotten a bit steeper.
But they kept coming. With two out in the bottom of the sixth, Nelson singled for the second time and Brown smacked a gapper for a double. A wild pitch allowed Nelson to score while Tyler Green, running for Brown, took third. Gilmore limited the damage, however, striking out Taylor to end the inning.
Cross finished well, working around a two-out single to Wewers in the top of the seventh and, interestingly enough, the Hornets had the exact same part of their lineup coming up in the bottom of the seventh of the second game that they’d had coming up in the bottom of the seventh of the first contest.
And, once again, they gave themselves a chance to rally. Instead of a home run this time, however, Pickett had to settle for a walk. Castleberry, too, drew a free pass so, with no one out, the potential tying run came to the plate.
After a visit from his coach, however, Gilmore bore down and retired the next three on a pair of strikeouts and a pop to short to clinch the win and nail down the No. 3 seed from the Central at State.
That produces a similar situation to the one that occurred in last year’s State tournament. Bryant met Catholic in the semifinals and won 1-0 in a thriller to gain their trip to Baum Stadium for the championship game, which, of course, they won.
They could meet again in the semifinals this year too.
BRYANT 3, LR CATHOLIC 2
Rockets ab r h bi Hornets ab r h bi
Rougeau, cf 4 0 0 0 Nelson, ss 2 0 0 0
Mays, lf 3 0 1 1 Brown, 3b 2 0 0 0
Tanner, ss 2 0 0 0 Taylor, p 3 0 0 0
Morris, 3b 3 0 0 0 Pickett, 1b 3 1 2 1
Battisto, 1b 3 0 1 0 Cross, dh 3 0 1 0
Haun, dh 3 1 1 0 Wilson, pr 0 1 0 0
Wewers, c 3 0 1 0 Joiner, lf 2 0 0 0
Friend, cr 0 0 0 0 Pultro, cf 1 0 0 1
McKay, 2b 2 0 1 0 Jobe, rf 3 1 1 0
Cissell, ph 1 0 0 0 Lessenberry, c 1 0 0 0
Price, rf 2 1 1 0 Wilson, cr 0 0 0 0
Wallace, p 0 0 0 0 Castleberry, ph 1 0 1 1
Gilmore, p 0 0 0 0 Hurt, 2b 0 0 0 0
Totals 26 2 6 2 Totals 21 3 5 3
LR Catholic 000 001 1 — 2
BRYANT 000 000 3 — 3
Two outs when winning run scored.
E—Nelson. DP—LR Catholic 2. LOB—LR Catholic 5, Bryant 4. 2B—Cross, Jobe. HR—Pickett. SB—Price. S—Joiner. SF—Pultro.
Pitching ip r er h bb so
Wallace (L) 6.2 3 3 4 3 3
Gilmore 0 0 0 1 0 0
Taylor (W, 5-2) 7 2 2 6 2 6
HPB—Lessenberry (by Wallace).
LR CATHOLIC 7, BRYANT 4
Rockets ab r h bi Hornets ab r h bi
Rougeau, cf 4 2 2 3 Nelson, 2b 4 1 2 0
Mays, lf 4 1 2 0 Brown, 3b 3 1 1 0
Tanner, ss 4 1 2 3 T.Green, pr 0 0 0 0
Morris, 3b 4 0 1 1 Taylor, ss 4 0 1 0
Battisto, 1b 3 0 1 0 Castleberry, dh 2 0 2 0
Haun, dh 3 0 1 0 Joiner, lf 4 0 2 2
Wewers, c 4 0 1 0 Pultro, cf 3 0 0 0
McKay, 2b 3 1 1 0 Jobe, rf 4 0 0 0
Getchell, ph 1 0 0 0 Lessenberry, c 2 0 0 0
Price, rf 2 2 1 0 Wilson, cr 0 0 0 0
Mashburn, p 0 0 0 0 Milam, p 0 0 0 0
Gilmore, p 0 0 0 0 Cross, p 0 0 0 0
Totals 32 7 12 7 Totals 28 4 9 2
LR Catholic 230 002 0 — 7
BRYANT 002 011 0 — 4
E—Taylor. LOB—LR Catholic 7, Bryant 10. 2B—Rougeau, Morris, Brown. 3B—Tanner. HR—Rougeau. SB—Taylor. S—Pultro, Castleberry, Haun.
Pitching ip r er h bb so
Masburn 3.1 2 2 7 1 1
Gilmore (W) 3.2 2 2 2 2 5
Milam (L, 6-3) 1.1 5 5 5 1 2
Cross 5.2 2 2 7 1 5
HBP—Lessenberry (by Mashburn), Pickett (by Gilmore). WP—Milam, Cross, Gilmore.
Would love to see all of Kevin’s baseball pictures. Please let him know that the link on his website for baseball pictures doesn’t work. Congratulations Hornets on a great season!!