Lady Hornets knock out Benton with dramatic rally
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).
CABOT — Here’s how Tyler Cox’s squibber cued off the end of her bat proved more deadly to the Benton Lady Panthers than her laser of a line drive:
In the 2005 Class AAAAA State championship softball game at the Lady Back Yard in Fayetteville, Cox came to bat in the bottom of the seventh with two outs, her team trailing 4-2, with the tying runs in scoring position. On a 2-0 pitch from Benton’s Leah Vaughn, Cox blistered a liner that was caught by shortstop Jo Jo Grant ending the game. Benton had won its second straight State title.
Fast forward to Tuesday, May 9, when, in the quarterfinals of the 2006 State tourney in Cabot, Cox came to the plate, facing Vaughn again, with the game tied 1-1, two outs and the bases loaded. This time, Cox hit the first pitch — not very well, but she put it in play. It spun out to the left of the Benton third baseman who made a stab at it. But the ball ticked off the end of her glove and rolled away far enough that Bonnie Stroud ran in from third to score as Cox and the other baserunners advanced safely. Thus, the Lady Hornets ended their arch-rivals’ bid for a third title in a row, advancing to the semifinals against AAAAA-Central rival Conway.
Benton had defeated Bryant three times earlier this season and each game, including Tuesday’s, had been dubbed a re-match. But it really wasn’t. Yes, Benton had six starters back including Vaughn, the MVP of the 2005 State tourney. But Bryant had just three players back from the starting lineup from that 2005 final, making their accomplishment that much more impressive. The Lady Hornets started three juniors, two sophomores and four freshmen on Tuesday.
(And the win was all the sweeter because the Lady Hornets’ home field had been vandalized one night before the game. Someone painted a big Panther paw in the outfield grass and words in praise of Benton.)
“A lot of our games have come down to the last inning,” recalled Lady Hornets head coach Lisa Spears. “These girls always hang in and give us a chance.”
Spears admitted, however, that her players’ heads were down after the top of the seventh. Vaughn and Cox had dueled to a scoreless tie through six innings. The teams had managed just two hits apiece. In the top of the seventh, Cox struck out the first two she faced, giving her eight for the game, before she walked Laura Huggins. Loren Caldwell ran for Huggins and, with Melissa Davis at the plate, took off to steal second. Bryant catcher Randi Juliusson, who had already thrown out four would-be base-stealers in the game, was a little short on her peg this time. It got by into center field then past the outfielder, as well, and Caldwell scored what looked, at the time, like the decisive run, an inappropriately cheap one at that for such a great game.
Cox got Davis to bounce back to her to end the inning and the Lady Hornets took their turn at the plate with a trio of freshmen due up.
“They had long faces,” Spears acknowledged. “I told them to get rid of them, basically, and do what they had to do in the dugout. And they did.”
But not before the drama mounted. Vaughn retired the first two with ease, brining up Paige Turpin, who took a strike then looped one over the first baseman’s head. Turpin’s speed proved crucial throughout the inning but initially on her hit. Benton’s right-fielder charged in hard to play the ball and threw to first almost getting it there in time.
That brought up sophomore Lindsey Cason, making her first plate appearance of the game. Turpin stole second as Cason worked the count full. Cason then squibbed one toward third — a roller almost identical to the Cox would hit later. The ball glanced off the glove of the third baseman and ricocheted to Grant. Turpin charged toward third as Grant scooped the ball back to her teammate at third. In a bang-bang play, Turpin slid in under a late tag.
Stroud ran for Cason as lead-off batter Christen Kirchner came to the plate. Kirchner, another freshman, had one of Bryant’s hits in the game and had made solid contact throughout. Benton appeared to be pitching around her, giving her an unintentional intentional walk but the second pitch from Vaughn was in the dirt and got to the backstop. Turpin started for home but thought better of it and, after getting halfway, returned to third as the Benton catcher hustled after the ball and Vaughn sprinted in to cover home.
It looked like a tantalizing chance to tie the game had gotten away from the Lady Hornets.
“It’s got to be a reaction on a passed ball,” Spears said, adding that by the time she yells go or stay, it’s probably too late. “I’m not going to holler at them. I think she did the right thing in that situation. Maybe she realized we were at the top of our lineup and we were fixing to hit her in. At least, that’s what I told her when she came back. I was glad she stayed.”
Stroud moved up to second on the play leaving first open for the Lady Panthers to go ahead and walk Kirchner to load the bases with sophomore Kristen Dorsey coming up. Dorsey swung at Vaughn’s first pitch but then took two balls. Spears called timeout to talk to her hitter.
“She’s a real smart hitter,” Spears related. “She did a job there. She picked up that their pitcher was struggling. I told her that she was just as nervous as she was.”
And Dorsey proceeded to take two more pitches off the plate, walking to force in Turpin with the tying run.
Cox was next.
The Lady Hornets improved to 17-10 including two wins over Conway, 2-0 and 2-1, this season.