Photos by Kevin Nagle
Zach “Panda” Jackson fired a four-hit shutout while Garrett Misenheimer, Dylan Hurt and Jake East came through with clutch RBI singles as the Bryant Hornets turned back the Little Rock Catholic Rockets, 4-0, on Senior Night at Bryant High School Field.
The Hornets, now 26-2, will now be the No. 1 seed from the Central Conference for the 2016 Class 7A State Tournament in North Little Rock. They’ll have the league’s only first-round bye, placing them two wins from a trip to Baum Stadium for the State championship game. They’ll open play at the tournament on Friday at 10 a.m., against the winner of a first-round game between Rogers, the third seed from the West, and Cabot, the third seed from the East.
Catholic will be the No. 3 seed from the Central and will play on Thursday probably against Fayetteville, the fourth seed from the West, at 3 p.m. Conway, which clinched the 2 seed from the league with a win over Van Buren Friday night, will open on Thursday at 5:30 p.m., reportedly against Springdale, the sixth seed from the West.
Asked about the bracket after Friday’s game, head coach Kirk Bock said, “I haven’t even seen it. I just know we’ve got a bye in the first round. I have no idea who we’re matched up with. I wanted to get through this first. I’ll worry about that later.”
Jackson needed just 72 pitches to go the route. He struck out five with one walk and induced two grounders that the Bryant defense turned into doubleplays. The Rockets had just two base-runners get past first.
“He stinkin’ battled,” Bock said. “I don’t think he was as sharp as he has been but he battled through it. That’s a mark of a good pitcher. When you haven’t got your best stuff and you still go out and win, that’s good.
“The focus of these kids is totally different,” he added. “We didn’t have to say anything to them. Panda took them under his wing and ran with it.”
Jackson’s second pitch of the game was lined to center for a single by Joe Myers but, moments later, he got Cameron Tissue to hit a grounder to East at short on his way to the second-base bag. East got the force then fired to first for the first doubleplay.
The Hornets gained the upper hand in the bottom of the first. Logan Allen led off with a walk, took second on a wild pitch by Catholic lefty Evan Hiatt. But Hiatt fanned the next two. An out away from escaping unscathed, however, he fell behind Misenheimer who yanked a 2-0 delivery into left for the Hornets’ first clutch RBI hit.
“It was huge,” Bock said of getting the early lead.
In the second, Jackson worked around a two-out single by Zach Walker, who proceeded to steal second. He was stranded though when Jackson struck out Lance Harville-Thomas to end the inning.
Hiatt, in turn, eased through a 1-2-3 home half.
In the third, Gavin Cunningham drew Jackson’s lone walk to lead-off the inning. A wild pitch got him to second and, when Ethan Fowler bounced to short, Cunningham took third.
So the Rockets had the tying run at third with one out and the top of their batting order coming up. But Jackson struck out Myers and got Tissue to pop up to second baseman Seth Tucker.
Bryant increased its lead in the bottom of the third. The uprising began when Joey Cates hustled to first on a third-strike passed ball. He then stole second with Allen at the plate. A pitch later, Allen bunted down the third-base line and beat it out for a hit. And when second base was left uncovered as the Rockets held Cates at third, Allen never stopped, taking second without a play.
That set the table for Hurt, who worked the count to 3-2 before drilling a single to left through the drawn-in infield. Cates scored easily and, on a bang-bang play, Allen slid in safely at the plate to make it 3-0.
With one out, Misenheimer drew a walk. With two down, East cracked a 1-1 pitch into center. Alex Shurtleff, running for Hurt, raced towards home. The throw from the outfield took Catholic catcher Luke Wewers up the line and into Shurtleff’s path. Shurtleff’s leg hit the side of Wewers’ head as he scored.
Wewers was dazed but, after going through the concussion protocols with Bryant trainer Christa Finney, gamely played on.
But the Hornets had their 4-0 lead at that point. All that was left to do was hold the Rockets.
Jackson worked around a two-out single by Hiatt in the top of the fourth, getting the third out when Walker bounced to East, who tossed to Tucker for a force at second.
After Bryant threatened with a single by Tucker and a two-out walk to Hurt, stranding both, the Rockets were retired in order in the top of the fifth.
Myers opened the sixth by striking out but when the pitch in the dirt on strike three got away from Hurt, Myers reached first. Tissue flew out to Cates in right then Jackson got two strikes in to Ben Bryles before he grounded to East who started the inning-ending doubleplay.
“We had a couple of really good doubleplays in there that didn’t really stop them but kept them from building,” Bock observed. “Defensively, again, we played pretty good.”
Jackson needed just four pitches to retire the first two batters in the top of the seventh. Walker kept the Rockets’ hopes of a comeback alive with a single to right. The first pitch to Harville-Thomas, however, was in the dirt. Hurt blocked the ball but couldn’t come up with it cleanly. Walker took off for second just as Hurt located the ball. He fired to second in time and the Hornets celebrated their victory.
Afterwards, the seniors, Allen, Cates, Jordan Gentry, Hurt, Jackson, Evan Lee, Aaron Orender, Shurtleff and Dylan Singleton along with manager Houston Yuille IV were honored. It was noted that in their four years on the team, the Hornets have compiled a record of 114-13 so far.
“That’s a lot of wins now,” acknowledged Bock. “This is that same group, parts of it, that were on the (Bryant Babe Ruth) World Series teams. These kids know how to stinkin’ win. Most of these kids, you know, Darren Hurt had them in the summer and Darren Hurt knows how to win. I tell you, it’s tremendous for our program to have that program working side by side with us.”
The Hornets will try to add to that win total on Monday with a final regular-season game at Pine Bluff as a tune-up for Friday’s State tourney opener.