By Rob Patrick
PEARCY — The Bryant Lady Hornets’ disappointing loss to the North Little Rock[more] Lady Charging Wildcats on Monday, kind of hung like a cloud over Tuesday’s regular-season finale at Lake Hamilton. Worn to a frazzle by a virus and eight stressful innings of pitching in Monday’s game, junior Peyton Jenkins was held out of the game completely. Head coach Debbie Clark took the opportunity to tinker some more with her lineup and get a look at a couple of her younger players.
And there might’ve been a bit of a letdown after the high emotions of Monday’s game, something they could ill afford against a solid Lake Hamilton team.
Much to her frustration, Clark again saw her team take an early lead only to have the opposition overcome it, as was the case on Monday when the Lady Cats rallied to tie then win in extra innings. A two-run homer in the top of the seventh by Jessie Taylor enabled Bryant to cut into a 6-3 deficit on Tuesday, but Lake Hamilton held on for a 6-5 win in preparation for their trip to the Class 6A State Tournament in Sherwood on Friday. As the third seed from the 6A-South, the Lady Wolves were set to open State against Jacksonville.
“We’ve got to finish strong,” Clark stated. “Against North Little Rock, we started strong and it was like we were almost trying to coast and then we had to, oh, play — you know, hold on. We were playing not to lose and I’ve got to get that aggressiveness back; that hunger back; that beast mode back, where they are playing to win and not playing not to lose.
“Now it’s one game at a time, one inning at a time,” she continued. “And that’s what we were looking at tonight. Even though we didn’t have Peyton, we had opportunities to score. And that’s been our nemesis for the past couple of games. So, we have got to get to a mindset where, ‘I have enough confidence in that box that, with runners on base, I can do my job to move them.’”
Freshman Kayla Jolly started in the circle for the Lady Hornets, her first varsity assignment. She pitched well for three innings but ran into trouble in the fourth. Kayla Sory relieved and before she could get the final out, stranding three Lady Wolves, Bryant’s 3-1 lead had turned into that 6-3 deficit.Freshman Kaley Coppock started at first with Sory, the usual first sacker, in center. Carly Yazza, who usually plays in left, and Katy Stillman, who usually starts in right, switched places. Coppock helped establish that early lead with a clutch hit in the opening inning.
“Lots of reasons,” Clark said. “(Assistant) Coach (Nathan Castaldi) and I just feel like we have not progressed to the team that we wanted to be at this point. And we’re not sure if it’s personnel, if it’s maybe a combination of things. So we needed to look at some different angles on lineups because when we walk on the field Saturday, I want to go out there and go, ‘Yes. We’ve got it.’ And there’s just not been some progression that we wanted. That’s part of it. Defending State champions? There’s got to be some progression and there’s got to be some want-to. We see that in several players but I’ve got to have it as a unit. That’s my job. So that’s what we’re going to be working on.”
Still, the Lady Hornets missed Jenkins, not only in the circle but at the plate. She usually hits clean-up.
“As a coach, you have to weigh — this game was extremely important,” Clark explained. “Lake Hamilton’s well-coached and has a good team and we schedule it so we can go into the State tournament — but we also know that we have that State Tournament coming up and we have to have Peyton healthy. Last night, she pitched her heart out. Between every inning, we had her behind the dugout. We were pouring pickle juice and anything else we could get down her.
“She understood. We decided not to let her do anything. She said, ‘I think it’s going to be hard,’ and I said, ‘Welcome to my world.’”
The Lady Hornets open defense of their State title in Bentonville on Saturday at 1:45 p.m., probably against either Springdale Har-Ber or Little Rock Hall.
Actually, if you think about it, Tuesday’s game was, in a way, a tune-up game at the end of a season full of tune-up games. Sure, the Lady Hornets love to win, always give their best effort, and hate — and how! — to lose but, with almost everybody back from a State championship team, it had to be in the back of their minds that their season didn’t really start in earnest until State.
Clark, of course, did her best to keep it in the back of their minds, trying to spur them on to be as good as they can be.
And now, of course, that time has come when they can all concentrate fully on their ultimate goal all along: Another championship.
Regarding Tuesday’s game at Lake Hamilton, the Lady Hornets jumped to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first. Jenna Bruick slapped a single to left and Stillman drew a walk. Taylor, who hit the ball hard four times only to be robbed twice, lined to left for the first out. But Lake Hamilton pitcher Madie Blancaflor issued her second walk to Kayla Sory and the bases were loaded with one out. Cassidy Wilson followed with a high infield pop that drew an infield fly ruling from the umpire. Wilson was out but when Lake Hamilton shortstop Kenzie Drake dropped it, the speedy Bruick sprinted home for the first run.
Stillman and Sory alertly moved up on the late throw to the plate and, with two out, freshman Kaley Coppock came through with a soft liner down the right field line for a two-run single.Jolly held the Lady Wolves in the bottom of the inning, working around two-out singles by Drake and Kelsie Ridgeway. In the second, however, Melissa Chunn led off with a homer to center.
Jolly issued a walk to Blancaflor and, after a sacrifice, Peyton Vinyard blooped one to right that Bryant’s Carly Yazza streaking in and caught with a lunge.
Hannah Hull singled to put runners at the corners but, on a ball in the dirt, Taylor came up firing to retire the courtesy runner as she tried to take second, ending the inning.
In the third, Jolly retired the 2-3-4 hitters on just 10 pitches.
But Blancaflor had found her groove too. She worked around a walk to McKenzie Rice with one out in the second. In the third, Taylor was robbed of a hit by a sparkling backhanded stop in the hole by Drake at short. Sory popped one up behind second that fell in when Ashleigh Brown at second and Vinyard in right played “I’ve-got-it, you-take-it.” Sory moved up on a wild pitch but was stranded.
The game-turning fourth inning began with a slapped single to left by Brown. Chunn hit one in the hole at short and Wilson made an eye-catching stab but didn’t have time to throw to first for an out. A wild pitch allowed both runners to move up and Blancaflor spanked a single to right to drive them home and tie the game 3-3.
And when Keri Sanders doubled to right to put runners at second and third, Clark called on Sory to relieve. She got the first out when Vinyard popped to Taylor but Hull laced a double down the left-field line to plate two more runs. Kayla Bullard sacrificed and, just a strike away from the inning coming to an end, Drake grounded a single up the middle to make it 6-3.
Bryant had made a bid to score in the top of the inning when Ashley Chaloner walked and Yazza’s bunt single drew a bad throw off Chaloner’s helmet after Ridgeway had charged in to field the ball only to fall down, forcing a throw from her seat.
McKenzie Rice came up to bunt as well but the ball died in front of home plate and Hull popped out from her catcher’s spot to grab the ball and throw to third for a force. Bruick made good contact but flew out to left, bringing up Stillman. On an 0-1 pitch, she scorched a drive to center only to be robbed of extra bases on a leaping catch by Ashley Stanfield.
In the fifth, Taylor mashed a liner that, again, Drake snared with a lunge. That proved crucial when Sory singled and Wilson walked. Again, however, Blancaflor and the Lady Wolves got out of the jam.
Counting the final out of the fourth, Sory wound up retiring the last seven batters of the game for the Lady Hornets. But Blancaflor retired the side in order in the sixth. She did, however, issue a walk to Stillman to start the seventh, setting up Taylor’s bomb to left.
On Monday, Taylor broke her own school record with her 12th homer of the season. Tuesday’s shot was her 13th, one short of the single-season state record according to the admittedly incomplete Arkansas Activities Association record book.
Unfortunately, the Lady Hornets were unable to add on after Taylor’s blast. Blancaflor retired the next three to finish off the win.