Lady Hornets close out regular-season with crazy comeback win over Benton
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
Benton was big early and Bryant was big late.
The result was a game that went into extra innings tied 10-10. After completing a wild doubleplay to end the top of the eighth, the Lady Hornets won it on a sacrifice fly by Jenna Bruick in the bottom of the frame, 11-10.
Bryant rallied from 6-0 and 9-2 deficits, scoring five times in the fifth with Jessie Taylor blasting a three-run homer, her 10th of the season. And, in her final game at Lady Hornets’ field, Bryant’s lone senior Shanika Johnson blasted a three-run shot to tie the game in the bottom of the seventh.[more]
Bryant takes a 23-2 record into the Class 7A State Tournament, riding a 12-game winning streak. As the No. 1 seed from the 7A-Central, by virtue of Monday’s emotional 4-1 win over North Little Rock, the Lady Hornets will open State play on Saturday at noon in Cabot. They will play the survivor of a first-round game between Conway and either Springdale (probably), Southside or Heritage. Like the Lady Panthers in the Class 6A State tourney at Sherwood, they’ll be two wins away from a return trip to Bogle Park at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville for the State title game.
Benton will also open State play at noon against the winner of a first-round game between Watson Chapel and Marion.
Wouldn’t it be something if both teams came home with big trophies?
So, really, other than the fact that it was the renewal of the old Saline County rivalry (with the seemingly requisite controversies), the game meant very little. In fact, the members of the two teams have more in common as teammates on summer teams than intense rivals. The two schools haven’t been conference foes since 2001 when these girls were in elementary school.
And, early on, the Lady Hornets, who received their conference championship trophy before the game, seemed to still be basking in the glow of Monday’s victory against the Lady Charging Wildcats who have emerged as a rival that often inspires more intensity than Benton.
Of course, the fact that Benton opened the game with five straight hits in taking a quick 5-0 lead might’ve had something to do with it especially when Lady Panthers starting pitcher Lauren White came out tossing darts, retiring eight of the first nine she faced.
New to the old rivalry herself, Bryant head coach Debbie Stepp’s thoughts on the game, understandably, had more to do with preparing for State.
“I wasn’t sure how we were going to respond because it was such a big, emotional win (Monday) night,” she allowed. “And that’s a good reason to play this kind of game against good competition. Benton has a great team with a great coach. I thought, at the beginning, we were flat. We’ve got to know that we’re down to a one-game season. We’ve got to be able to play through that.
“I also wanted to use (the game),” she added. “We changed the pitching up a bit, changed some positions because, you know, people can get hurt. You can work it at practice but it’s different when people are in different positions and there’s another team hitting. You never know when someone might get hurt. You never know when we might have a tiebreaker so you practice it but then, in a game like this, it’s good to have that pressure.”
The game came down to this in the eighth inning:
Benton began the top of the frame with Kara Franklin on second in accordance with the international tiebreaker rule. Katelyn Eubanks did a good job of getting a bunt down, sacrificing Franklin to third.
Peyton Jenkins, the Lady Hornets’ ace pitcher who had come in as the team’s third pitcher in the seventh inning, then walked Joanna Curtis.
After a courtesy runner came in for Curtis, Kara Reynolds tapped back to Jenkins with Franklin breaking toward home. Jenkins fired to Taylor, the catcher, who chased Franklin back to third, diving to tag her about halfway up the line. The trail runner from first tried to sneak into third but Taylor fired a throw that tipped off the edge of the glove of Johnson, the third baseman who was trying to help with the rundown. It deflected right into the glove of shortstop Cassidy Wilson who was covering third. She applied the tag at the bat to complete the doubleplay, ending the inning.
In the bottom half, Bryant’s Stephanie Cyz started on second. She had come into the game to play left field in the top of the inning after Shelby Henson had pinch-hit for left-fielder Ashley Chaloner in the seventh. Kelsie Works got a perfect bunt down for a sacrifice. A good play by Franklin, the Benton catcher, to get the ball to first in time to retire the speedy Works kept it from being a first-and-third situation.
But Hannah Rice reached on an error that allowed Cyz to reach third then Bruick hit a fly to left where Benton’s Ashley Martindale made the catch and a strong throw to the plate. But it was up the first-base line and Cyz crossed the plate safely to win the game.
The Lady Hornets got a lift midway through the game from Jesseca Cudd in the pitcher’s circle. Cudd, who suffered a severe hip injury during the 2009 season, has only been healthy enough to pitch in a couple of recent junior varsity games. With Bryant trailing 9-2 and Benton looking unstoppable on offense, Cudd quieted the Lady Panthers’ bats, retiring six in a row over two innings. Meanwhile, the Lady Hornets rallied to within 9-7.
To start the seventh, Cudd had a 3-2 count on Korie Parker and, after Parker fouled off a pair of pitches, Cudd hit her with a delivery. Then, when her first pitch to Bailey Smith narrowly missed hitting her, Stepp brought in Jenkins.
Cudd received an appreciative round of applause from the Bryant fans when she exited.
“She came in and did a good job,” Stepp acknowledged. “We’ve watched her in those JV games and this was a great game for us to see her with the varsity on defense and see what she could do. I’m really excited. I think the future’s really bright for the Lady Hornets and for her.”
Parker, by virtue of a passed ball, a wild pitch and an illegal pitch, wound up scoring Benton’s 10th run but Jenkins retired the next three batters to send it to the bottom of the seventh.
She then began Bryant’s tying uprising with one out in the bottom of the inning pulling a sharp single to left. A wild pitch allowed Jenkins to take second and, with a base open, Jessica Smith, the second Benton pitcher, issued the old “unintentional-intentional” walk to the Bryant slugger who was 3 for 3 in the game.
Sory battled and hit a drive to left-center only to have Martindale chase it down for the second out. Jenkins and Taylor then worked a double steal. Jenkins drew a throw to third and, on a close call, was ruled safe, a call protested vehemently by the Benton coaches and fans.
The game came that close to ending in Benton’s favor.
Instead, a pitch later, Johnson yanked a 2-0 deliver over the fence in left-center for a dramatic game-tying blast.
Smith came back with a strikeout to send the game to the eighth.
Benton’s opening salvo commenced with a single up the middle by Martindale. Tiffany Pledger beat out a bunt hit and Parker singled home the first run, taking second on a throw to the plate that held Pledger at third.
But Bailey Smith doubled both home to make it 3-0. She scored when Katie Mills lashed the first of her three hits to left. And when the ball was misplayed, Mills wound up at third.
Franklin followed with a grounder to short. Wilson tried to catch Mills wandering off third to no avail (on a play close enough for Stepp to talk to the umpires about). With Franklin on first, Eubanks hit a grounder to Wilson whose only play was to first. Mills scored to make it 5-0.
The Lady Hornets got out of the inning when Sory started a nifty 1-3-5 doubleplay.
In the third, Benton made it 6-0. With one out, Mills beat out a bunt single, advanced on a groundout by Franklin and scored on a single to left by Eubanks who was thrown out trying to advance to second when the throw from left was cut off by Johnson.
Bryant got some offense going in the bottom of the third after two were out. Bruick blooped a single to right-center for just the second Lady Hornet hit. Wilson followed with a grounder up the middle and Jenkins shot a hit to center that was misplayed allowing both runs to score.
Jenkins wound up at second. She took third on a single by Taylor who tried to sneak into second on the relay to the plate. But Franklin fired to Parker in time for the tag to end the inning.
Benton proceeded to add on to the lead in the fourth. Curtis doubled and Reynolds beat out an infield hit. Martindale reached on an error to load the bases. Pledger followed with a liner that Wilson grabbed. She held Curtis at third but had Reynolds caught off second. Wilson threw to Bruick covering second as Reynolds slid in hand-first. As it turned out, Bruick stepped on Reynolds hand and as she checked just for a second to see if Reynolds was okay, Curtis sprinted home to make it 7-2.
Parker’s single made it 8-2 and, after Bailey Smith grounded to Wilson who threw to Johnson just barely in time for a force at third, Mills singled in Parker to make it 9-2.
On another close play, Bailey Smith was caught trying to get to third on the play as Taylor took the throw from the outfield and whipped a relay to Johnson who swiped a tag that Benton coach Eric Ryan argued either missed or wasn’t in time.
The play stood, however, and the game went to the bottom of the fourth with Benton threatening to make it a run-rule win (10-run lead after five innings), especially after the Lady Hornets were retired in order.
But Cudd, with the help of a nice running catch in right-center by Works, retired the side in order in the top of the fifth and the Lady Hornets put together their five-run surge in the home half. A one-out walk to Cudd opened the door, bring up the top of the Bryant lineup again.
Bruick slapped a single to left and, after a wild pitch moved courtesy runner McKenzie Rice and Bruick to second and third, Wilson lashed a double down the left-field line to chase both home.
Ryan called on Jessica Smith for relief at that point. Jenkins waited out a walk then Taylor blasted her three-run shot to center, increasing her school-record for homers in a season.
Smith, however, maintained the lead after that. She retired the next two to end the inning and, after Cudd worked a 1-2-3 top of the sixth (including a pair of strikeouts), Smith pitched around a lead-off single by Chaloner in the bottom of the sixth to set up the dramatic seventh.
“Once we started hitting, that helped,” Stepp said of her team’s comeback. “But I want to say that my assistant Elliott (Jacobs) is just amazing. He’s a former big-time player (football and baseball at Arkansas State University), so he understands a lot of the personalities. He’s really good at saying the right thing at the right time to the girls or to me. I give a lot of credit to him tonight for the win because I felt like he was really on top of where the girls were coming from and how they were feeling. I think I have the best assistant in Arkansas, if not in the whole country. I want to say that because he means that much to me and this program. Not every head coach is that lucky.”