By Rob Patrick
CABOT — For the first time, a Bryant team has won the Junior American Legion State[more] championship.
On Tuesday night, the Everett Black Sox completed an unbeaten run through the tourney with a 5-3 victory over Jacksonville Gwatney Chevrolet at the new Cabot Panther Field to capture the title. The game was interrupted by a lengthy delay due to lightning and rain. In fact, the delay, which came at the end of the third inning, may have lasted longer than the actual game time.
Bryant, now 34-1, was already set to play in the Southwest Regional Junior tourney starting Friday as the host team but won the State tournament anyway. Jacksonville, the Little Rock Vipers and Cabot Centennial Bank will also compete in the Regional.
“The key is just 17 guys getting together and coming to the field every day with one thing in mind and that’s winning,” stated the Sox first-year manager Tyler Brown. “It took every single one of those 17 guys. We’re American Legion State champions and it feels amazing right now. I’m really proud of the guys for going out there and competing every inning, competing every pitch.”
It made for a nice double for Brown, who managed the Junior Sox this year in a State title run after, just last year, helping the Senior Black Sox to a State crown as a player. He credited his valuable assistants, Mike Lee and Brandon Crosby.
Highlighted by Dalton Holt’s solo homer, the Sox had established a 4-2 lead at that point. The lone runs that Jacksonville had managed were both unearned as lefty Evan Lee battled through the first three innings then came back after the interruption to pitch into the sixth inning. He scattered six hits, walked two and fanned a batter.
Zach Jackson, a 15-year-old right-hander who spent most of the season with the Everett team but had since been moved to Bryant’s Senior Legion team, rejoined the Junior Sox for a one last-time appearance and closed out the game. He was available because the Senior Sox had wrapped up their District Tournament title on Monday night. He’ll be rejoining them in Mountain Home for the Senior Legion State Tournament as Bryant tries to defend its 2012 State title.
Jackson not only got the last four outs of the game, allowing just one base-runner who reached on an error, but he also scored an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth. He stole second, took third on a wild pitch by Jacksonville reliever James Tucker and, after Brandan Warner walked and stole second, scored on another errant delivery to make it 5-3.
It got a little tense in the top of the seventh when, with two down, Jacksonville’s Greg Jones reached on the error then advanced to second on a wild pitch with Courtland McDonald at the plate. The count to McDonald went to 3-2 and he fouled off three tough pitches before tapping back to Jackson to end the game.
The Sox took a 2-0 lead in the first when Drew Tipton beat out an infield hit and scored when Holt’s single to center was misplayed. Holt wound up at third but remained there until, with two out, Hunter Oglesby came through in the clutch with a single to left.
Lee had pitched around a pair of singles — one a bad-hop past shortstop Harrison Dale who was given a harsh error on the play by the official scorer — in the first. In the second, he walked Brandon Higganbotham. With one down, D.J. Scott bunted perfectly down the third-base line and beat it out for a hit. With the third-base bag apparently uncovered, Higganbotham tried to sneak in there but Lee and Dale sprinted over and Warner made like the quarterback he is, and threw to Lee, a moving target near enough to the bag that the pitcher got the tag down for the out.
But with Scott at first, Dontay Harris singled to right. The ball was misplayed allowing Scott to score all the way from first as Harris motored into third. Moments later, a throwing error on a groundball on the infield allowed the second run to score.
Lee got Ryan Mallison to pop to Blake Patterson at first to end the inning. He would work a 1-2-3 third before the delay.
The Sox got their at-bat in in the bottom of the third with Holt blasting the second pitch of the inning from Jacksonville starter Josh Cook, over the fence in left to make it 3-2.
Two outs later, Oglesby’s grounder to short was misplayed. He stole second and scored when Trey Breeding delivered in the clutch, pulling a solid single into left.
Despite the length of the delay, both starters came back out. Lee surrendered a single to Higganbotham but then retired the side, finishing with a strikeout of Harris. Cook retired the side in order in the home fourth.
“That’s all we talked about during the break,” Brown said, referring to the decision to send Lee back out. “Coach Lee and I talked it, talked with Evan about it, and, in the end, we figured that was the best decision, that he was the guy to go to. He wanted the ball so we gave it to him and he gave us two, three great innings after that. He got us to Zach, our closer, and Zach came in and shut it down for us.
“We had great pitching all tournament,” he noted. “When you win every game in the tournament, you can’t just give credit to the bats, you have to give it to the pitching staff and the defense too. It took 17 guys to make us State champs.”
In the top of the fifth, Lee had to battle to keep Gwatney from tying it or taking a lead. Derek St. Claire singled, took second on a wild pitch and, after Mallison walked, reached third when Blake Perry got a bunt down. Lee fielded the ball and tried to get the force at third but, on a bang-bang play, St. Claire slid in safely.
With the bases full, a pop to shallow center by Jones produced the first out. McDonald rolled one out to Dale at short. He tossed to second-sacker Connor Tatum for the force but the speedy McDonald beat the relay to first as St. Claire scored to make it 4-3.
McDonald stole second but Lee dropped an 0-2 curve on Higganbotham for an inning-ending strikeout that forced Jacksonville to strand runners at second and third.
In the sixth, Lee retired the first two batters but a walk to Harris and a ball on the first pitch to St. Claire moved Brown to call on Jackson. St. Claire, who had been on base in each of his previous three at-bats, bounced to Tipton at second who tagged out Harris to end the inning.
That led to the insurance run in the bottom of the sixth and Jackson’s close-out work for the save in the seventh.