By Rob Patrick
Photos by Kevin Nagle
Perfection — the Bryant Lady Hornets closed out the regular season on Tuesday night with a[more] 13-0 win over the North Little Rock Lady Cats, staying perfect on the season at 31-0 with pitcher Peyton Jenkins actually coming within one of pitching a perfect game. Along the way, the Lady Hornets added to their treasure trove of records. Jenkins smacked a grand slam in the third to tie the record for home runs by a team in one season at 35 then McKenzie Rice lined her first varsity homer over the fence in right in the fourth to make it a state record 36.
Lady Hornets head coach Debbie Clark started all eight of her seniors and when a nine-run fourth put the game in run-rule territory, she re-entered the ones she’d subbed out so they could all finish their final regular-season home game on the field together.
Of course, they’ll be playing there again on Friday when they begin their bid to win a third straight Class 7A State championship. The State tourney begins on Thursday at noon with games at the Lady Hornets’ Field and at Bishop Park. With a first-round bye as Central champs, the Lady Hornets get into action at noon on Friday.
Seniors Brittney Ball, Jenna Bruick, Ashley Chaloner, Jenkins, Ashlyn Lessenberry, Kayla Sory, Jessie Taylor and Cassidy Wilson were honored with their parents after the game. Their accomplishments read like a re-write of the State softball record book.
With hopes of three more games to play, that group has been a part of 106 wins and just 15 losses in four seasons including the last 34 in a row. They’ve won 52 of 56 conference games.
Along with the team home run record in a season, they have set new team standards for runs, doubles, runs batted in, batting average and slugging percentage.
It was an emotional night for all involved but particularly for Clark who came to Bryant after winning a State championship at Wynne, a place she’d lived her whole life. But, after working back from a heart attack, made the bold move away from home to Bryant. (For the full story, go here.)
“I just feel blessed and honored that I’m here,” she stated after the game.
“I just told the Superintendent (Randy Rutherford), I said, ‘Thank you so much for hiring me.’ These girls welcomed me three years ago. I didn’t know what to expect. I was scared. They were scared. Now I feel like I’ve been here forever. It’s been incredible and tonight was just amazing.
“You can’t prepare yourself for something like this,” she said, regarding the seniors. “They’re just amazing and incredible and it’s been magical.”
The only North Little Rock baserunner came in the third inning on an error. Rice, the only starter that wasn’t a senior, was playing third and bobbled a grounder allowing Erin Columbus to reach base. Kelsie Claussen tried to sacrifice but popped up her bunt and Taylor, the Bryant catcher, made a spectacular diving catch at the base of the backstop.
Jenkins went on to retire the last eight batters in a row. She finished with seven strikeouts.
And Rice, of course, came back to smack the record-setting blast, her second hit of the game.
It was her third consecutive shutout and sixth in the last seven games. Over those seven games, only one run has been scored against the Lady Hornets, on April 27, by Russellville. This season, they’ve, incredibly, out-scored their 31 foes, 314-20. No one has scored more than two runs against them in a game.
Tuesday’s onslaught began with a single by Rice with one out in the second. It appeared that she was the second out when she made a delayed dash toward second with Katy Stillman at the plate. Initially, Rice was called out at second but assistant coach Nathan Castaldi, coaching at first, noticed that she had evaded the tag and that the first-base umpire may have seen that too. Clark came out to appeal and, after a conference among the three umps, the call was indeed reversed.
North Little Rock’s coach protested noting that Rice had started off the field and was tagged before getting to third. But it was ruled the play had been called dead when Rice was ruled out.
Stillman hit a two-hop shot toward center that North Little Rock shortstop Ashton Bobbitt fielded with a dive. She had no play, however, as Stillman beat it out for a hit as Rice held at second. Moments later, she was retired on a force at third when Kaley Coppock grounded to short but a single by Bruick loaded the bases for Jenkins who launched a 1-1 pitch well beyond the fence just inside the foul pole in left.
Bryant’s nine-run fourth commenced with an error that allowed Sory to reach base. Wilson sacrificed her to second then Carly Yazza drew a walk brining up Rice, who smashed an 0-2 on a line to right, just clearing the fence to make it 7-0 and 36 homers on the season for the team.
With two down, Coppock nearly made it three homers in the game when she launched a shot off the top of the fence in left for a double. Bruick was hit by a pitch and Jenkins drove in her fifth run of the game with a single. Taylor and Sory drew walks to force in another tally then Wilson cleared the bases with a double as courtesy runners Kayla Jolley and Breanna Sanders scored in front of Sory. Yazza’s single made it 13-0.