Photos courtesy of Ben Goff, Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
BENTONVILLE — It’s really hard to fathom how much has to go just right for a team to win a State championship, much less three over five years.
There are plenty of great teams that never managed to win one (partly, of course, because high school baseball in Arkansas is one of the few places where championships are determined by single-elimination tournaments).
A lot of little things (and big ones) have to go your way.
Unfortunately, very little went the Bryant Hornets’ way on Thursday in the first round of the Class 7A State Tournament at Tigers Athletic Complex at Bentonville High School.
Four errors, three of which were tough plays, played a part in four unearned runs as the Hornets, the defending 7A champs, bowed out to the Rogers Heritage War Eagles, 6-3.
It was the first time the two teams had met since the 2012 State championship game, which Bryant won — the middle of their three titles — 4-2.
The Hornets had hoped to snap the every-other-year pattern that has occurred. For anyone seeking insight into what may have created that situation, consider that each time the Hornets won the State title, the tournament was held at Burns Park in North Little Rock (with the final, as usual, at the University of Arkansas’ Baum Stadium). The years that the Hornets have been denied during that stretch, the tourney was held in Fort Smith, Rogers and, this year, Bentonville, respectively. (And when it was in Fort Smith in 2011, Bryant still made it to the title game.)
For what it’s worth, it ain’t about the travel.
The Hornets conclude the season 28-3. Perhaps the most successful classes of seniors that have come through Bryant ended their Bryant High School careers being a part of teams that went 113-18 with two Class 7A championships in four years. As members of the varsity over the last three years, they’ve gone 88-11.
“They’ve been great,” stated Bryant coach Kirk Bock. “The thing is, with these seniors, some of those guys have been carrying us for three years as starters. (Brandan) Warner at third base, (Trey) Breeding at catcher, (Jason) Hastings (right field/first base/pitcher). I can’t say enough about those guys. They did a great job for three years and they’ll do a great job for the next four when they’re playing in college.”
A pair of University of Arkansas commits, Blaine Knight of Bryant and Kacey Murphy of Rogers Heritage, squared off on the mound. Murphy, a lefty with a tough breaking ball, fanned 10, walked two and allowed three runs, one earned on four hits. Knight fanned eight without a walk, gave up eight hits and was charged with all six runs with, again, only one of them earned.
“We played hard, we just didn’t play well enough to win,” Bock said. “That’s the bottom line. We had good effort, a good attitude. We just didn’t play well. That happens. We just didn’t make plays when we needed to. If we do, it’s a different ballgame.
“I think our teams are very comparable,” he added. “It’s just they played better than we did today and they won. That’s baseball.”
The only earned run for the War Eagles came in the first when Chase Kilgore singled, Dane Olsen sacrificed and Logan Easley doubled him home.
Heritage scored a second run on a double, a sacrificed and a passed ball in the second.
Over the first two frames, the Hornets only managed a one-out single by Hastings.
In the third, Knight pitched around two-out hits by Easley and Murphy, striking out former Hornet Ty Harris to end the inning.
In the home third, Bryant got on the board. Connor Tatum reached base on a one-out error. He was forced at second on a grounder off the bat of Drew Tipton. But Tipton beat the rap at first avoiding the inning-ending doubleplay and, after he stole second, Warner cracked a single up the middle to get him home.
Murphy kept it to that, however.
Neither team did much in the fourth but the fifth was much different. First, the War Eagles picked up another unearned run. With one out, Olsen reached on an bad-hop error. Knight fanned Easley but Murphy helped himself out with an RBI double to make it 3-1.
In the home half, Dylan Hurt rifled a double past third to start a Bryant rally. Garrett Misenheimer drew a four-pitch walk. Up to sacrifice, Tatum got a terrific bunt down and a wild throw pulled Harris, the first baseman, off the bag.
With the bases loaded and no one out, Tipton delivered a sacrifice fly and Warner squeezed in the tying run. Tatum moved up into scoring position and Breeding smacked a line drive but it was caught by Easley at second and Heritage escaped with the score deadlocked.
In the fifth, Warner made a spectacular play on a bouncer to the right of the mound. But the next batter, McCauley Sams beat out a hit on a swinging bunt. With Sams on the move, Dylan Qualls hit a roller to the right side. Knight couldn’t quite get to it and with both he and Sams passing in front of Tatum at second, the ball squirted through. An errant throw from the outfield trying to catch Sams at third, allowed him to score, putting Heritage back on top 4-3.
The Hornets made noise in the bottom of the inning when Hastings walked, advanced on a wild pitch and reached third on Hurt’s second hit, a single to right. Hurt stole second, trying initially to get caught in a rundown (the War Eagles wouldn’t bite) but Murphy ended the threat with his third strikeout of the inning.
But Bryant had hope with 9-1-2 due up in the bottom of the seventh. Unfortunately, the task became tougher when Heritage scored another pair of unearned runs in the top of the inning. Kilgore started the inning by reaching on a boot. Olsen came up to bunt but couldn’t get one down. With an 0-2 count, he started to square around then pulled the bat back and lined a double into left. Kilgore scored.
Zach Jackson came on in relief of Knight, who had reached 101 pitches, at that point. He got Easley to pop up a bunt attempt that Breeding made a nice play on. That brought up Murphy and Bock instructed that he be walked intentionally, setting up a potential doubleplay situation that could get the Hornets out of the inning.
A wild pitch moved the runners to second and third so Bock ordered that Harris be intentionally passed to set up a force at any base and, again, the potential for an inning-ending doubleplay.
Jackson came back to strike out Sam Cooper. That brought Sams back to the plate. The count ran to 3-2 with a couple of close pitches not going the Hornets’ way. Sams took ball four, forcing in the final run.
Jackson got pinch-hitter Peyton Stewart to ground out to Blake Patterson at first and the Hornets came up in the home seventh with a hill to climb.
Murphy, however, despite starting the inning with his 99th pitch, retired the side in order on eight pitches to close out the win and end the Hornets’ season.