By Rob Patrick
Before the 2011 season began, Bryant Hornets head baseball coach Kirk Bock was talking about[more] the pressure that comes with defending a State championship. His team was already riddled with injuries. Some recovered and played key roles this year (Jordan Taylor, Caleb Milam, Lucas Castleberry), others unfortunately would not (Blake Davidson, Hunter Mayall).
“Some people think there’s a lot of pressure on you after you win one but these kids are used to being successful,” he stated. “And they take it in stride. I think every kid in this program has been successful at one time or another. So we just go to work.”
That success is well documented. There have been Little League and Babe Ruth State championships, Regional championships and lots of World Series action, including a title, along the way.
And here they are, on the eve of a second consecutive Class 7A State final despite the fact that just three players who started last year’s championship game (Taylor, Tyler Brown and Chris Joiner) will be taking the diamond against Conway on Saturday at 5:30 p.m., at UCA’s Bear Stadium.
The Hornets, 23-7, captured the 7A-Central title. Conway, 24-7, was second in the conference by just a game. The two teams split in their league doubleheader at Conway. Now, the rubber game will determine the State champion.
Friday, Bryant head coach Kirk Bock, reflected on the season, noting, “Certainly the pressure was on to get back there but, you know, outside of our expectations to get there, I don’t think anybody else’s expectations were, because we had so many pieces of that puzzle missing. We had internal pressure, but maybe not as much from the outside. But then we’ll have it (internally) next year and the year after that, every year after for sure.
“You know these kids have done a tremendous job of just stepping up and getting the job done,” he emphasized. “The one thing that we do have that, I hope, is always constant is the mindset and the expectations. I don’t think there’s a kid in the whole program that didn’t expect us to get back and compete. Now, obviously, you’ve got to have breaks to make it to the final game. But our expectations are that we’re going to compete as hard as we can and, if we can do that, good things are going to happen.”
Going into last year’s final, Bock predicted that the team that played defense the best would win. Sure enough, the Van Buren Pointers suffered five errors while the Hornets played flawlessly. Of course, it didn’t hurt that senior right-hander Ben Wells pitched a perfect game. But it wouldn’t have been perfect if his teammates hadn’t made the plays behind him.
“No walks and no errors,” Bock repeated regarding this year’s title game. “If we can do that, we’re going to have a great chance. If we can’t do that, it’ll be more difficult. Walks and errors — that’s what hurt us (in the 11-9 regular season loss at Conway). They’re going to get their hits but they got their runs through walks and errors. We’re going to get our knocks and they’re going to get their knocks. It’s just who can get it done defensively.”
For those who have not been following the Hornets closely this season, Taylor, Milam and Dylan Cross have been carrying most of the load on the mound. Taylor is the hot hand with a 6-2 mark and a 3.80 earned run average that’s a bit deceiving because of some early struggles. Milam was the ace to start the season and slumped but turned in a crucial performance in the Hornets’ semifinal win over Little Rock Catholic. He’s now 7-4 with a 3.68 ERA. Cross scrambled a bit in the start against Catholic on Monday but sports a 5-0 record with a 3.29 earned run average.
Offensively, the Hornets are led by Landon Pickett who’s hitting .422 with a team-high 4 homers and 31 runs batted in. Brown’s hitting .403, Castleberry .426 and Taylor .397. Joiner, Cross and right-fielder Evan Jobe are all over .300 and catcher Hayden Lessenberry (.263) has been hot in the clutch. Center fielder Josh Pultro is at .297 and infielder Tyler Nelson, hitting .266, leads the team with 37 walks.