Photos courtesy of J'Ann Lessenberry
By Rob Patrick
ROGERS — When you get a State Tournament down to the best four teams in the highest[more] classification, it’s often just a matter of who gets the breaks. Over the last three years, the Bryant Hornets have certainly benefitted from a few on their way to three straight title games and two championships. Of course, they had to be in a position to make those breaks matter.
On Saturday, May 11, as the Hornets were making a bid to make their fourth consecutive final, the breaks all seemed to go the way of the Class 7A State tourney host. The Rogers Mounties, playing their third game in three days having previously knocked out Cabot and North Little Rock, had themselves in position to benefit from those breaks and proceeded to advance to the title game against West Conference rival, Fayetteville, this Friday.
Cinderella wears Rogers blue this year.
The final margin of 12-2 was a far cry from the intensity of the game through five innings. And it very likely wouldn’t have wound up that way but for one crucial break for the Mounties, among others.
With runners at first and second and two out — thanks in large part to a diving catch of a sliced liner by Hornets senior Austin Caldwell in right — and Rogers clinging to a 2-1 lead, the Mounties’ Zach Arrick slapped a hot two-hopper to the right side of the infield. Bryant first baseman Jason Hastings, who had started the game on the mound, made a splendid diving stop. Hayden Daniel, the third Hornets’ pitcher, was hustling over to cover the bag. Hastings tossed the ball to Daniel who had a foot on the bag as the throw was released. But his momentum carried him a step beyond the base as he grabbed the toss and Arrick was ruled safe on a bang-bang play.
If Hastings might’ve been able to scramble to his feet and make the throw just a second sooner or if Daniel would’ve been able to hold on the bag, the Hornets would’ve been out of the inning, down 2-1, with the heart of their batting order coming.
Instead, Rogers had the bases loaded and a walk followed that forced in a run and started a landslide. After a pitching change, a hit batsman forced in a run bringing up three-hole hitter Austin Griffin, who worked the count to 3-2 before lacing a drive off the left-field fence for a three-run double that broke the game open.
With Bryant using five pitchers over the final two innings, Rogers wound up scoring 10 times — five in the sixth and five more in the seventh to blow the game up.
“We didn’t get a break right there,” acknowledged Hornets coach Kirk Bock. “If we get that break, it’s the third out and there’s no runs scored. In the past, we’ve gotten that break. The guy (umpire) made a great call. The call was right. We just didn’t execute the play very well.
“That’s just baseball,” he asserted. “The kids played extremely well. They were focused up and they were in the game.”
It wasn’t the only break that went Rogers’ way. In the bottom of the fifth, with it still 2-1, Korey Thompson had singled and Harrison Dale had sacrificed pinch-runner Drew Tipton to second, bringing up the top of the order. Tyler Green tied into the very next pitch, ripping a screamer that Rogers shortstop Timmy Seldomridge lunged to grab, following his momentum to the second-base bag where he doubled off Tipton to end the inning.
Even after that first big salvo by the Mounties in the top of the sixth, the Hornets made a bid to get right back in it when Trevor Ezell, Marcus Wilson and Hayden Lessenberry cracked consecutive singles to load the base with no one out in the home sixth. But one grounder to third resulted in a force at the plate and a second grounder to third resulted in an inning-ending 5-3 doubleplay.
The Hornets were frustrated by Rogers’ soft-tossing lefty Chris Greer. The Mounties’ third starter, Greer, a senior, made the most of his opportunity by going the distance for the win. He allowed two runs on nine hits, walked just one and struck out just one, the latter for the final out of the game.
“He did a tremendous job,” Bock said. “He kept us out of rhythm. When we went into phases where we could get in rhythm with him, we did pretty good. Then we’d get back out.
“We had a plan,” he stated. “We just didn’t execute the plan very well offensively.”
Hastings, Bryant’s sophomore southpaw, matched Greer over the first three innings and he retired the first two batters of the fourth before the Mounties’ Konstantin Storkov got a drive up into the strong wind blowing out, for a home run to snap the scoreless tie.
Carter Forbis followed with a single, moved up on a wild pitch as Norlan Farnan drew the first and only walk Hastings surrendered. Bryant came a strike away from getting out of the inning at that point before Arrick slapped that 0-2 delivery into right for an RBI single and a 2-0 lead.
Bryant freshman right-hander Zach Jackson relieved at that point and got the final out on a grounder to short.
And, with two out in the bottom of the inning, the Hornets got one of those runs back when Daniel blasted a solo homer. Brandan Warner made a bid for a follow-up hit but Rogers’ first baseman Brett Gentz made an impressive scoop of a throw into the dirt to get the out.
Jackson worked a 1-2-3 fifth then Daniel took over in the sixth. A walk preceded Caldwell’s eye-popping grab in right. Forbis singled but then Daniel fanned Farnan to bring up Arrick.
In the seventh, Rogers took advantage of four hits, a pair of hit batsmen and an error to plate its five insurance runs. Arrick had the big blow of that inning, a two-run double to left.
Bryant didn't got quietly in the home seventh. Warner led off with a double to left-center and, with one out, Ty Harris walked. Ezell's two-out single drove in Warner but that was all the Hornets would muster.
Rogers improved to 22-9 on the season. Bryant’s campaign concludes with a 27-6 mark. The loss snapped the Hornets’ 20-game win streak. It was the most runs scored against Bryant this season and just the second loss to an in-state team.
The contest marks the final game in Bryant blue for the team’s six seniors, Green, Wilson, Lessenberry, Daniel, Caldwell and Nate Rutherford, who pitched the Hornets to victory on Thursday against Van Buren.
“They’ve been tremendous,” Bock said of the group. “In 20-some-odd years of coaching, I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad group of seniors and these guys are certainly right with the rest of them. Those three outfielders we’ve got (Daniel, Green and Wilson) are good. We actually have four good outfielders with Caldwell. He made a tremendous play out here. For a lot of teams, he’d be starting. Lessenberry swinging it is good and Nate does such a good job.
"They’re tremendous guys, and hard workers,” he emphasized. “From the time I had all those guys (except for Nate) from the ninth grade on, I don’t ever remember any of them taking a day off. They’ve done a great job for us for four years.”