Hornets tame Tigers to reach 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
BENTON — The last two summers and one other before that, Justin Wells and Cory Lambert were teammates on a team called the Central Arkansas Sox, coached by Lambert’s dad, Ted. In 2002, in fact, they were part of a USSSA 15-and-under national championship season with Wells named the MVP of the championship tournament.
That same summer, the Bryant Babe Ruth 15-and-under team won State and Regional tournaments and advanced to the Babe Ruth World Series. (Another 15-year-old, Todd Bryan, played up, starting for the Bryant AA American Legion team.)
Any wonder that the Bryant Hornets of 2004, with those guys sans Lambert forming the core of the team as juniors, were ranked No. 1 all season and just short of unbeatable?
Lambert, meanwhile, though he lived in Bryant, transferred to Little Rock Central, a rival of the Hornets in the AAAAA-Central Conference. (He will, in fact, be playing American Legion with Wells and his Bryant friends this summer.)
Past teammates, future teammates.
But on Wednesday, May 5, in the Class AAAAA State Tournament semifinals at Panther Field at Benton High School, they were rivals and either the Hornets or the Tigers were going to play for a State title at the other’s expense as the two teams met for the third time this season.
And who happened to be the two starting pitchers? Yes, Wells for Bryant, Lambert for Central.
“It was pretty interesting,” Wells said later. “We’d never faced each other before. There’s kind of a little rivalry there. We’ve kept in touch a little bit (during the season). He said he’s been doing good and that they were shooting for the same thing we were.”
Except, for the third time, the Hornets got the better of it. Their 6-1 win behind Wells’ three-hitter thrust the Hornets into the State championship game, the first time for the program.
“We were pumped up for the game but, you know, the only thing we were a little nervous about was playing a team three times,” Wells noted. “It’s hard to beat a team three times in a row.”
The two hurlers battled through three scoreless innings. Central made a bid to take the lead in the second when George Bain walked and Lambert slapped a one-out single up the middle. Justin Richards, running for Bain, raced to third on the hit. Justin Mack followed with a flyball to right. Richards tagged and figured to score but Bryant right fielder Bryan Griffith unloaded a perfect throw to the plate and catcher Dustin Easterly applied the tag in time for a spectacular inning-ending doubleplay.
“That was huge,” stated Hornets coach Terry Harper. “We told the guys, in their (Central’s) minds, they can beat you and as long as you let them hang around, the more fuel to their fire, the tougher it’s going to be. But once we got on top, we didn’t look back.”
That happened in the top of the fourth, a three-run inning for the Hornets highlighted by Zack Young’s goose-egg breaking two-run homer. It was his team-leading fifth bomb of the season and part of a 2-for-4 performance that made Young 8 of 12 in three State Tournament games with two doubles, two homers and a whopping nine runs batted in.
The blast came on the heels of Lambert’s only walk, to Griffith to lead off the inning. And, an out later, Dustin Tinkler singled, took second on a misplayed pickoff, to third on a fly to center by Andrew Moseley and scored on a clutch single by Dustin Easterly.
“Zack’s home run really got me fired up,” Wells said. “Then I just kind of put it on cruise control from there. Pitching with a lead, you feel like you can get away with a mistake and still be okay.”
Bryant added a run in the fifth off Central reliever Jake Sullivan when Griffith drew a two-out walk and raced to third when Young’s grounder to second drew a bad throw to first. Young then got into a rundown between first and second and stayed in it just long enough for Griffith to race home.
In the sixth, Tinkler walked and after Korey Hunter was robbed of a hit by Central third sacker Phillip Wood, Easterly came through with another two-out hit, this time a triple that made it 5-0.
Central took advantage of an error to score a run in the sixth on a double by Blake Bumgardner. An out later, the Hornets got out of the inning when Tinkler robbed Lambert of a hit with a diving catch in left.
Bryant got the run back in the top of the seventh. Travis Wood doubled and Wells beat out an infield hit. A walk to Griffith loaded the bases and forced another pitching change. Richard Weatherford came on to retire two including Wood on a force at the plate. But then he issued a walk to Tinkler to force in a run.
Wells struck out the first two in the bottom of the seventh and retired the Tigers 1-2-3 to close out the landmark win.
“How many hits have we had in three games? 32?” Harper pondered. “Who said we can’t hit? And, oh, yeah, we do pitch a little bit. And we run a little bit. But, the key to us getting where we’re at is (senior pitcher) Daniel Price. He put us in the best spot we could possibly be in. I give him a ton of credit, along with everybody else.”
Price pitched in the Hornets’ opening game at State against Blytheville.
“Everybody’s come through big,” Harper continued. “We’ve played three complete ballgames, as good as we’ve played all year; clutch hitting, timely defense, good pitching.
“I won’t forget any of my teams but this will be one that will be put on the map,” Harper said of reaching the championship game. “This has been the funnest year. The hardest thing we’ve had to do as far as coaching these guys is getting them back and forth on the bus. And Coach (Kris) Clark has been doing that so, you know, it’s been easy, easy as far as coaching, as far as getting the kids motivated, them coming out to practice. They do what we ask them to do. They’ve been a joy.”