Win over Conway lifts Lady Hornets into 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
CABOT — A lesser team may have rested on their laurels. After all, the Bryant Lady Hornets had just accomplished a season-long goal by beating the arch-rival Benton Lady Panthers after losing to them three times during the regular season. And thus, they had ended the Lady Panthers’ bid for a third consecutive Class AAAAA championship, sending them home after the second round of the 2006 tournament.
But the Lady Hornets were not done. Granted, it may have helped that their semifinal foe was the Conway Lady Wampus Cats, a rival that has rapidly intensified to become perhaps second only to Benton.
Still, they took nothing for granted and, behind some stellar defense and the one-hit shutout pitching of junior Tyler Cox, the Lady Hornets dismissed Conway 4-0 to make their second consecutive appearance in the championship game at the University of Arkansas’ Lady Back Yard in Fayetteville.
Bryant improved to 18-10 this season, winning its fifth game in a row and 13th in their last 14 games. The Lady Hornets were set to take on No. 1 ranked Fayetteville in the title game on Saturday, May 13 (see related story).
Making it back to the championship game was no small feat for a team that only returned three starters and had only one senior.
“It’s been two totally different teams,” acknowledged Lady Hornets head coach Lisa Spears. “We’ve just had to do things a little bit different this year but they’ve come together here at the end and, most of all, they’ve played with heart.
“Early on this year, we had problems with our defense,” she continued. “We’d have one or two crucial errors which would just take the ballgame from us. Our defense has really cleaned it up and now we’re winning those close ballgames.”
The elders of the team, Cox, catcher Randi Juliusson and shortstop Hailey King, the team’s only juniors, came through in the clutch. Offensively, they each contributed hits in Bryant’s four-run sixth-inning outburst. The Bryant defense played errorlessly and King, the team’s shortstop, nearly robbed Conway’s Kayce Moore of the only hit the Lady Wampus Cats managed against Cox who struck out five and walked three.
And King and Cox teamed up for what may have been the key defensive play of the game. The game was scoreless in the fourth when Cox issued walks to Schylar Dake and J.B. Davis to start the inning off. A wild pitch moved the runners to second and third with no one out.
After a little conference with herself behind the pitching circle, Cox came back to strike out Laura Solberg.
“I just tell myself that I’ve got to sit back, wait, calm down, breathe and throw strikes, that it doesn’t matter if they hit it, my defense has got my back,” Cox said later.
Moore came to the plate next and missed a bunt attempt. With third baseman Christen Kirchner charging, Dake wandered down the line from third. Meanwhile, King snuck in behind them at the bag at third and Juliusson fired a strike to her, nailing Dake trying to scramble back.
That took the stuffing out of the Conway uprising. Fired up, Cox fanned Moore to end the inning.
“Anytime a girl gets off a base, I try to gun them as soon as I see them because any outs we make will clear them off the bases and fire us up,” Juliusson said.
“I knew she was going to do it,” Cox added. “I have confidence in my catcher.”
“She was able to react on that,” added Spears. “Sometimes, we’ll call that play but she’s been able to get at least one baserunner out a game and sometimes two or three. That was a big chance for them to put runs on the board but fortunately we came up with a big defensive play.”
Juliusson then singled to lead off the fifth. Ashley Herndon sacrificed her to second but Dake rallied to strike out the next two to keep it scoreless.
Cox fanned two more in the bottom of the fifth then the telling sixth began with Kirchner lifting a high fly into the cloudless sky. Davis, the Conway left fielder appeared to have the ball gauged but she lost it in the sun and it fell no more than a foot away from her.
Kirchner, hustling all the way, sprinted to second. Kristen Dorsey followed with a perfect bunt that she beat out for a hit as Kirchner charged to third. And when the Lady Wampus Cats focused on holding Kirchner at third, Dorsey alertly sprinted on down to second.
Though first base was open, the Lady Wampus Cats decided to pitch to Cox who had blasted a two-out triple against Dake in the first inning.
The first pitch was in on her hands, but Cox muscled a looping liner to left that drove in the game’s first two runs.
King followed with a single up the middle. A passed ball allowed Laci Rowland, running for Cox, and King to move up to second and third. Sarah Hart then got a bunt down. Dake fielded the ball and chose to try to nab Rowland at third but Tia Houston couldn’t hold the throw and the bases were loaded for Juliusson who belted an 0-1 pitch over the center fielder’s head for a two-run double, making it 4-0.
“I was just trying to hit it as hard as I could and score some runs,” Juliusson said.
Conway went down 1-2-3 in the sixth and the seventh as Cox finished the game by retiring 11 in a row after the two walks in the fourth.
“We wanted it so bad,” she said regarding the return to the championship game. “We’ve been talking about it since the beginning of the season.”