Photos courtesy of J'Ann Lessenberry
By Rob Patrick
ROGERS — There were some anxious moments for some folks when the defending champion Bryant[more] Hornets fell behind the Van Buren Pointers 3-0 in the first inning of Friday’s Class 7A State Tournament game at Veteran’s Park.
But not among the Hornets.
Been there, done that.
Led by senior Hayden Lessenberry who was 2-for-2 with a sacrifice fly and four runs batted in along with one-hit pitching from Nate Rutherford after that rugged first, the Hornets made like Orb, the Kentucky Derby-winning thoroughbred, gradually catching up and passing the Pointers for a 7-3 win.
Bryant will take on host Rogers in the semifinals on Saturday at 2:30 p.m., in a bid to make a fourth straight trip to the Class 7A championship game. Rogers, the fourth seed from the West Conference, stunned top-ranked North Little Rock, 9-0, on Friday after eliminating Cabot, 6-1, on Thursday.
“They’re very, very well coached,” said Bryant head coach Kirk Bock of the Mountaineers. “He’ll get them going. It’s certainly going to be a chore.
“You know, once you get this deep in it and everybody’s still in it, it’s anybody’s game,” he added. “We’ve just got to be one run better.”
Now 27-5 overall, Bryant has won 20 games in a row.
Trevor Ezell was on base all four times he got to the plate and he scored three runs. Like Lessenberry, Ezell is a returning starter from the 2012 State title team. But the Hornets also got key hits from some less experienced guys, particularly in the nine-hole where freshman Evan Lee ignited a two-run fifth with a pinch-hit single. And, an inning later, sophomore catcher Trey Breeding cracked an RBI double as part of a two-run sixth that gave Rutherford some breathing room in the seventh.
“That was real good for him,” Bock said of Breeding who has been exceptional behind the plate but has scuffled at the plate much of the season. “The first one he hit he just got it off the end of the bat (for a line-out to left).
“We wanted to put Lee in there to get a lefty on right where everything’s coming in to him,” the coach continued, “And he came through big.
“I don’t care if we have to use 12 guys in that spot, as long as they keep coming through, we’re fine,” he quipped.
The tournament is being played on a field with somewhat smaller dimensions than the Hornets’ park and the wind was blowing out on Friday. In the top of the first, Van Buren’s Caleb Baumen singled to left and Levi Froud drew the first of Rutherford’s two walks in the game.
That brought up slugging first baseman Hunter Ryan, who had homered against the Hornets when the two teams met at Arkansas Tech in Russellville on March 14 in a 4-3 Bryant win. But Rutherford got him to pop to Hayden Daniel in right.
The Hornets’ senior right-hander, who was the MVP of the 2012 State tourney, got ahead of clean-up hitter Spencer Rapin, 1-2. On the next pitch, however, Rapin ripped it for a three-run homer to left-center.
After a visit from pitching coach Steven Tharp, however, Rutherford settled down and proceeded to retire the next 12 in a row.
“I hate playing with the wind blowing out,” Bock commented. “And with Nate pitching, it’s really only the first inning because he usually just gets started slow. And he did today. He was just up (in the zone). He was hyped up and all that stuff too. But, after that, he settled down and did a pretty decent job.”
In the fifth, a one-out error ended his string. Hunter Hogan followed with a single to put runners at first and third but Rutherford got Baumen to rap in to a 6-4-3 doubleplay to end the threat.
Van Buren would manage only one base-runner in the final two frames. It was a one-out walk to Ryan in the top of the sixth.
After falling behind in the top of the first, the Hornets took advantage of some wildness from Baumen to get two runs back and force a pitching change in the bottom of the first.
Baumen issued consecutive walks to Tyler Green and Trevor Ezell to start the home half. Marcus Wilson got the first of two perfectly placed sacrifice bunts down to move them into scoring position for Lessenberry who slapped a single to right to drive in Green. And when the ball was kicked in right, Ezell crossed the plate as well.
With two down, Baumen issued another walk to Ty Harris and gave way to another right-hander Taylor Anders who got Korey Thompson to pull a two-hopper to third for an inning-ending force.
Anders retired the Hornets in order in the second but, in the third, Ezell burned the right-fielder with a shot that went for a double. Wilson sacrificed him to third and Lesssenberry got him home with the tying run on a sacrifice fly to deep center that Baumen flagged down with a spectacular catch.
It stayed 3-3 until the bottom of the fifth when the Hornets got a chance to face Anders a second time. But that wasn’t the case for Lee who pulled an 0-1 pitch into right for a single.
Green followed with a sacrifice bunt and when the throw by Ryan got past second baseman Zed Steinmetz covering first, Green raced to second as Lee rolled into third.
Anders then walked Ezell to load the bases with no one out. Van Buren brought the infield in and that worked initially as Wilson rapped sharply to third for a force at the plate. But Lessenberry followed with a liner up the middle for a two-run single that gave the Hornets a 5-3 lead.
The two-run sixth began with a walk to Thompson. With one out and Thompson on the move, Breeding drilled an 0-1 pitch to the base of the fence in left for his RBI double. In short order, Green plugged the gap in left-center to drive in courtesy runner Austin Caldwell with the final run.
“Once we got into rhythm, we did a pretty good job,” Bock said of the bat work. “We executed the short game fairly well. We put ourselves in position to have an opportunity to get a big hit then Lessenberry came up with a couple of them and Breeding had one.”
Rutherford wound up with a three-hitter. He fanned four and had the two walks, throwing 89 pitches, above his normal pitch-count but exceptional for most starters.
The three runs the Pointers managed was the most a team has scored against the Hornets since a 14-7 win over Lutheran South of St. Louis on March 19 in Florida.