File photo by Rick Nation
CABOT — When 7A-Central Conference rivals Bryant and Fort Smith Southside played the first time this season on March 29, the more experienced Lady Hornets rolled to a 16-1 win. Later on, in Fort Smith, on April 24, the Lady Mavericks showed how much they’d improved and matured by rallying from a 5-2 deficit with three runs in the bottom of the seventh. And the game went extra innings, all the way to the ninth as it turned out, before Bryant pushed ahead and held on for an 8-6 victory.
On Friday, the two teams met for the third time, this time in the quarterfinals of the Class 7A tournament.
When you’ve played a team that many times, you pick up some things, an edge here and there.
And the Lady Hornets took advantage. With a strong pitching performance from senior Raven Loveless, they bounced the Lady Mavericks from the tournament 4-1.
Bryant, the 7A-Central Conference champion for the second year in a row, improved to 28-4 on the season and returns to the semifinals where their season stunningly ended last year. They’ll play Bentonville West at noon on Saturday for a chance to advance to the championship game next week in Fayetteville.
“Hopefully, we can finish it this time and make our mark,” said Bryant head coach Lisa Dreher, adding of her players, “The majority of them, they’ve been here. We’ve got two starting freshmen out there. But, it won’t be for lack of experience of being here.”
The game was tied 1-1 through three innings. In the bottom of the fourth, Meagan Chism singled up the middle and Loveless plugged the gap in right-center for a double. With one out, Maddie Stephens banged a sharp one-hopper off the pitcher Meliah Hunter. Though second baseman Ella Kohler got to it in time to retire Stephens at first, Chism scored and Callie Bradley, in running for Loveless, advanced to third.
Bella Herring then drove her in with a single to right-center, making it 3-1.
Moments later, Herring appeared to be picked off first by Southside catcher Madi Conklin. But, with the throw coming in behind her, Herring took off for second and beat the relay.
“There were some situations out there that we took advantage of, like the delayed steal with Bella,” Dreher mentioned. “Little things — we’re not just going to knock the cover off of it so we’ve got to take advantage of everything that we see.”
In the bottom of the fifth, Maddie Thompson drew a one-out walk. She took off for second on a pitch in the dirt. An errant throw from the catcher allowed Thompson to reach third.
Moments later, senior Sarah Evans hit a liner to left that was flagged down by Cailin Massey. At first, Thompson appeared to be holding at third. She wound up scoring though.
“They missed their cut and that brought the catcher off of the plate and she turned her back,” Dreher explained. “The pitcher saw Maddie run but she didn’t have anybody to throw it to.
“Maddie pays attention real good on that,” the coach related. “I knew she saw. We tend to see situations like that at the same time. She saw it the whole time. Probably as the ball was coming in, you can kind of see it develop. She’s real good at that. She’s not the fastest, but one of the smartest.”
In the top of the sixth, Southside made a bid to rally. Kohler drew a one-out walk and Hailey Hogue singled to left. Caitlyn Bagby followed with a tapper to third that Thompson fielded. She stepped on third for a force.
An out away from escaping the inning unscathed, Loveless got ahead with a pair of strikes before Kaitlyn Willis singled up the middle to load the bases. Mackenzie Farrar, the nine-hole hitter, was up. She took three pitches, all for balls. But, on the third delivery, Chism came up throwing, firing a dart to second where Alissa Suarez applied a tag on Bagby, who never got back to the bag.
The threat was over.
“We called that,” Dreher acknowledged when asked. “(Bagby) was just getting way far off for Chism. In that situation, that’s almost a given out with her. She does that quite a bit.”
Still, the situation was eerily similar to when the Lady Mavs rallied in the seventh to tie the game in that previous meeting.
“It was funny,” Dreher said. “The same situation came up with their ninth hitter, Farrar. It was 9-1-2 and I was going please, no. But we got her.”
And the top of the order as well. Loveless fanned Massey then got the final out off the bat of Hannah Hogue, a comebacker.
Dreher praised her pitcher, saying, “I haven’t seen her as sharp as she was today in a long time. She was on her game.”
Bryant had scored first in the contest. After Loveless eased through the top of the opening frame with a pair of taps back to the circle on either side of her first strikeout, Regan Ryan led off the home first with a single to left.
Thompson sacrificed to get her to second then Evans drilled an RBI double.
With one out in the second, Kohler beat out her team’s first hit, a roller to third. With Haley Hogue at the plate, Loveless caught her arm against her side and threw well behind Hogue to the backstop. On the hard bounce away from Chism, Thompson charged in from third and Loveless, seeing that Chism had found the ball, turned and headed towards third to cover as Kohler headed that way too. Chism got a throw to Loveless, a moving target. Loveless caught the throw and got a tag on Kohler for the out.
Southside tied it in the third when, with two out, Farrar was hit by a 1-2 pitch. Massey singled then Hannah Hogue’s slow roller to third resulted in a rushed throw to first. It got away and Farrar scored. Massey wound up at third and Hogue at second.
An intentional walk to Conklin loaded the bases and set up a force anywhere. Loveless escaped by inducing a one-hopper back to the circle that Loveless fielded, throwing to first to end the inning.
In the top of the fourth, Kohler singled and Haley Hogue sacrificed her to second. Bagby made a bid for an RBI single to right but her hot shot was stopped with a headlong dive by Suarez, who threw to first for the out as Kohler moved up to third. Willis flew out to Stephens in left and the game remained tied going into the game-breaking Bryant fourth.