Lady Hornets earn return to State Finals
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
SHERWOOD — After a year away, the Bryant Lady Hornets softball team is back in familiar surroundings. They’ll be playing for the Class AAAAA/AAAA State Championship this Saturday against the Sylvan Hills Lady Bears at the Lake Fayetteville Softball Complex in northwest Arkansas.
The Lady Hornets won consecutive state titles in 1995, ’96, and ’97 before being unseated last year by the rival Benton Lady Panthers.
This year, with a core of upper classmen, and a bevy of talented sophomores and freshman, the Lady Hornets make their return thanks to a 6-2 win over the Jacksonville Lady Red Devils on Tuesday at Sylvan Hills’ McReynolds Sports Complex.
Sylvan Hills also advanced with a 6-2 win, ousting the Fayetteville Lady Bulldogs Tuesday evening. The Lady Bears knocked out the defending champion Lady Panthers on Saturday.
For Bryant, pitching, defense and timely hitting came together to produce victory in their sixth meeting of the year against Jacksonville. It was the fourth win in the series for the Lady Hornets.
The Lady Hornets made the plays but they were also in position to make them thanks in large part to the research of Bryant coaches Stacy Mallett and Scott Curtis. The defense adjusted with nearly every batter, in stark contrast to most teams’ largely stationary deployment.
And pitcher Jenna White played into that as well. A four-year starter on the pitching slab for Bryant, White’s ability to spot her pitches often forced the opposition to hit the ball into the teeth of the defense.
It went hand-in-hand quite nicely.
“We made some great plays on defense,” Mallett commented after the game. “We studied them hard. We took all of our scouting reports, the scorebooks, everything from the five times we’d played them and, unless they were going to slip up and do something different, we felt like we had as much of an idea as them where they were going to go.
“Jenna’s so good,” Mallett added. “She makes people hit it where you want them to. I mean, truly. She puts the ball exactly where she wants it and so we can pretty much tell where it’s going to go.
“It worked well tonight,” she concluded. “But it wouldn’t have worked this well if the girls hadn’t made such good plays.”
Indeed, the Lady Hornets came up with big play after big play to keep Jacksonville shut out through six innings.
Offensively, freshman Misty Phillips went 2-for-2 with a sacrifice fly and three runs batted in. Her clutch two-run single with two down in the top of the third highlighted Bryant’s five-run uprising that proved to be the difference in the game.
Stephanie Kennedy, Tiffany Kennedy and Andrea Hammock also had two hits each and White was on base twice extending a streak of reaching base to 17 consecutive plate appearances before she flew out in the top of the sixth.
The Lady Hornets grabbed the lead in the opening inning. Singles by Stephanie Kennedy, Hammock and White loaded the bases for Phillips, who delivered a sacrifice fly that plated Kennedy.
In the bottom of the inning, a splendid defensive play by White helped keep Jacksonville off the board despite a pair of hits.
The Lady Red Devils threatened again in the second. With runners at first and second and one out, Sara Bostic smacked a hard grounder off the glove of Bryant’s diving third baseman Meagan Clancy. A bad hop allowed the ball to elude Stephanie Kennedy in left but rover Courtney Stone had hustled over to back up. Kristin Griggs, the lead runner for Jacksonville, started home but came back when Stone came up with ball. But Stone’s throw back to the infield was bobbled and Griggs started for home again. The ball, however, didn’t roll very far away from Clancy who scrambled after it. The Lady Hornets caught Griggs in a rundown and shortstop Tiffany Kennedy eventually tagged her out.
The next batter grounded out to end the threat.
Jacksonville’s defensive lapses helped Bryant get the crucial third-inning rally going. A wild throw from second on a grounder off Stacy Workman’s bat allowed the first base-runner. Two outs later, Stephanie Kennedy slapped a single to right.
Hammock, who had one of those games where the bloops were falling in for hits while the shots were being caught, looped one to no-man’s land in shallow left for a hit. And when it was misplayed, Workman scored.
With runners at second and third, the Lady Red Devils issued an intentional walk to the hot-hitting White to load the bases for Phillips. A pitch later, Phillips pounded a single to left to drive in two.
“(Misty) has so much power, so much talent,” Mallett noted. “We finally got it out of her mind to quit worrying about knocking the long ball and just keep her head down and hit a good, hard line shot. When she does that, she’s deadly.”
White went to third and Phillips reached second on the throw-in from the outfield. Jennifer Smith, running for White, scored when Kim Adams’ grounder to second was botched then Tiffany Kennedy singled in Phillips to make it 6-0.
An error to start the bottom of the inning got Jacksonville riled up. With one out, Nakiya Moragne made a bid to put her team on the board with a long drive into the left-field corner. But Stephanie Kennedy dashed back and, on the run, reached high and made a back-handed grab to rob Moragne of extra bases.
In the fourth, Hammock tracked down a pair of deep flies in right-center and right-fielder Nikki Turpin, positioned in right-center for Jacksonville’s Allison Porter, hauled in a shot.
In the fifth, Clancy and Workman combined on an eye-popping play. Clancy, at third, lunged to her right to knock down a one-hop shot. Her throw was low but Workman, at first, did the splits on her stretch and was still able to make a short-hop catch for the second out.
The next batter lined to left and Stephanie Kennedy went to her knees to make the grab.
Again, Jacksonville threatened in the sixth. With two one and one out, however, White got No. 3 hitter Kristin Hill to fly out to Hammock then forced clean-up hitter Amber Harbin to reach for a pitch. Harbin tried to pull it to the right side and weakly grounded out to Adams at second to retire the side.
The Lady Hornets, who had managed just one base-runner since the third, loaded the bases in the top of the seventh on a walk to Clancy and singles by Workman and Elise Snider. But the Lady Red Devils got out of the jam, giving them some momentum going into the bottom of the inning.
And a Bryant error to start the home seventh added to that. But the Lady Hornets regained some control when the next two batters grounded to second for consecutive force outs.
Crystal Smith, however, followed with a triple to left-center to chase home a run. She too scored when the return throw to the infield was bobbled.
But the Lady Hornets had one more top-notch defensive play to make. Pinch-hitter Tiffany Stephenson belted a long fly to left-center only to have Stone chase it down with a fine running catch in the gap to end the game and send the Lady Hornets to Fayetteville.
Bryant played Sylvan Hills in its second game of the season back on March 18 and absorbed a 6-5 loss.
“We have quite a bit different lineup (now) than we did when we played them,” Mallett said. “You know, they’re good. Fayetteville’s good, Benton’s good and they knocked both of them off. I feel good about playing them. I feel like we’re where we need to be right now and I think we might have a little bit of an advantage because we have people on our team that have been there.
“If we win, it’s going to be great,” Mallett concluded. “If we don’t win, nobody expected us to make it this far, so I’m very pleased.”