By Rob Patrick
BENTON — The purpose of a pre-season benefit game is — besides providing funds for the Arkansas Activity Association’s catastrophic injury insurance plan — to get a team on the field against an opponent, somebody besides teammates. It’s a chance to see where a team is in its development and, when it's played against a quality opponent, a chance to measure itself.
Oh, and sometimes, like Monday night when the Bryant Lady Hornets softball team visited the rival Benton Lady Panthers, it’s to inaugurate a spanking new facility.
And, though you always play to win, the outcome is secondary (though that’s tougher to admit when you’re playing a rival.)
Though both teams were playing without key members of their respective teams who are still playing basketball, the Lady Panthers hit well enough and pitched out of jams well enough to open their new ballpark with a 7-4 win.[more]
“We’ve got a lot to work on,” stated Lady Hornets coach Debbie Stepp. “It is correctible and we have time to do that. I was disappointed in our hitting because we’ve really been working on that. I was disappointed at times that we didn’t make the routine plays. But it’s the first game of the season.”
Stepp acknowledged that one of the “benefits” of a benefit game is that, if you win, you count it; if you lose, you don’t.
“And I’m not counting it,” she declared with a laugh.
The teams combined for nine errors in the game, four by Bryant plus a passed ball that hurt. The Lady Hornets managed just five hits including two by freshman Hannah Rice and two by sophomore Peyton Jenkins. The Lady Panthers had seven including a pair by Katie Mills.
“I was really impressed with Hannah,” Stepp commented, “and her speed. Her sister Makenzie was supposed to start on third for me but she has a stomach virus.”
So Hannah started in right and Shelby Henson got the start at third.
Asked what else she liked, Stepp quipped, “We put our uniforms on good.
“It’s not that I don’t have a lot of good to say,” she added. “It’s just that I need to go look at it and process it. We got people on base, but I think we just couldn’t execute what we needed to do. That’s what we’ve got to do. And if we’re going to make errors, we’re going to have to score. There were a couple of times that Benton got hits up the middle and we didn’t get those hits up the middle when we needed.”
Benton didn’t need a hit to get the first run of the game in the second inning. Amanda Jones reached on a third-strike passed ball that would’ve been the out to end the inning. With Laikin Davis up, a pick-off throw that appeared to have Jones caught, was missed at first and sailed into the right-field corner. Jones circled the bases. A pitch later, Davis popped out to Jenkins, the pitcher, who had worked around a walk and an error in the first.
Bryant answered with two runs in the third when Stephanie Cyz, who was on base three times, was hit by a pitch and stole second. Rice delivered a bloop single to left that got Cyz to third. She scored on Jenna Bruick slap back to pitcher Jessica Smith, who made a nice play on the ball, perhaps robbing Bruick of a hit.
Rice, who had taken second on the throw that had kept Cyz at third on her hit, advanced to third on Bruick’s ball then scored when Cassidy Wilson hit a bouncer to second.
Jenkins followed with a base hit then Jessie Taylor drove a fly to right that was caught by Katelynn Eubanks. Apparently, Eubanks didn’t realize there were two outs and she started to pull the ball from her glove to make a play on Jenkins who was running on contact and had almost reached third. And when Eubanks dropped the ball, a discussion ensued between the umpires about whether it was ruled a catch or a drop. The former ruling was enforced, ending the inning.
That was another factor in the game: There were quite a number of umpires on hand and they switched out every inning or so meaning batters and pitchers had to adjust to the variations in the strike zones called by different umps.
Benton tied the game in the bottom of the third when, with one out, Tiffany Pledger reached on an error. She stole second and when Eubanks grounded out to second, she took third. That would’ve ordinarily been the third out but, as it was, Smith batted and slapped a 1-1 delivery into right for an RBI single, Benton’s first hit of the game.
Kara Franklin followed with a single but Jenkins got Bailey Leverett to fly out to Cyz in left to keep it tied.
Henson opened the fourth by getting hit on a delivery from Smith. She was sacrificed to second by Kelsie Works but was stranded there and Smith retired the next two batters.
In turn, the Lady Panthers struck for three runs. Haley Durham walked to lead off the inning then stole second. But Jenkins struck out the next two batters, bringing up Mills who managed to sneak a two-hopper up the middle and, when it got past the center fielder and all the way to the wall, Durham scored and she wound up at third.
A walk to Pledger followed and, after she stole second, an illegal pitch allowed Mills to score and Eubanks singled to make it 5-2.
Back came Bryant in the top of the fifth. Rice singled to left, stole second and took third on a wild pitch as Wilson reached with a one-out walk. And when Wilson stole second, she drew a wild throw. Rice scored and Wilson headed to third. A relay to third also got away and Wilson scored as well, making it a one-run game.
But Lauren White, the second Benton pitcher, retired the next two batters to keep it that way.
The fifth inning proved to be decisive. Benton used a walk, a single and a double to plate two runs. In the bottom of the inning, Bryant loaded the bases as Henson and Works reached on errors and, with one out, Cyz walked. That brought up Rice, who hit the ball well again but right at Jones at first for a line out. White then ended the threat with a strikeout.
Jenkins pitched around a one-out single to Mills in the top of the sixth with the help of Taylor and Wilson. Mills took off to steal and appeared to be there in time but Wilson took the throw from Taylor, the Bryant catcher, and kept the tag on the sliding Mills. And when Mills slip off the bag, she was called out.
In the seventh, Jenkins singled past Leverett at short and took second on a passed ball but White fanned the next two to end the game.
The two teams went on to play a couple of more innings with junior varsity players getting some playing time. Neither team scored.
“It’s a great field,” Stepp stated. “I think the girls were a little taken aback by the facilities here. That’s part of softball, though. You’ve got to go make the field your own.
“We’re reading a book called ‘Winning a State Championship’ and it talks about being a ‘big dog’ and a ‘poser,’” she concluded. “We had a lot of ‘posers’ tonight. We need to re-look at that and know that we’ve got to learn how to be a ‘big dog.’ We’re going to work hard at that.”
The Lady Hornets are set to make their official debut at home against Lake Hamilton today at 5 p.m. A junior varsity game will follow the varsity contest.