Photos by Kevin Nagle
FAYETTEVILLE — Better make more room in the trophy case. The Bryant Hornets baseball team has brought home another big one, as they captured the 2016 Class 7A State championship on Friday at the University of Arkansas’ Baum Stadium.
In typical Hornets fashion, two runs were scratched out over the first four innings and the pitches and were made to protect that 2-0 edge.
And when the Conway Wampus Cats turned to ace lefty Collin Cahill in the fourth, it looked like the Hornets might have to make the two runs hold up.
They were more than capable, of course, with ace right-hander Zach “Panda” Jackson posting more zeros on the scoreboard and the team’s defense flashing some impressive leather.
But it was tense.
Cahill had been tough for the Hornets in two regular-season games. But, in the bottom of the fifth, Joey Cates singled, Logan Allen legged out a gift triple and Evan Lee launched a two-run bomb out of Baum to make it 5-0.
That eased the tension considerably as Jackson completed his second shutout of the tournament, this time blanking a team that had already scored 17 runs in three games on the way to the title game.
All that remained was the dogpile, the trophy presentation and MVP announcement. The first was epic, the second was jubilant and the third went to Lee, who not only pitched a shutout over Springdale Har-Ber in the semifinals but went 3 for 3 with three runs batted in against Conway but 5 for 9 in the tournament with two triples, his homer and seven knocked in.
“I’ve known Evan since the day he was born and I’m thrilled to death for him,” said Bryant head coach Kirk Bock. “He was very, very deserving. It was very deserving for Zach also.
“Zach’s the guy,” he added. “Zach’s got that killer mentality. When you’re sitting on the last game of the year, that’s what you want.”
Both Lee and Jackson have signed to play at Baum for the Arkansas Razorbacks next year.
It was the fourth State crown in seven years for Bryant as the Hornets continued the pattern (2010, 2012, 2014, 2016) under Bock.
“I know we get the credit but it’s our youth programs that should get the credit,” the coach said. “They get these guys from the time they’re 6-years-old and they educate them until we get them and we just kind of re-group them a little bit.
“We have a system,” he acknowledged. “And the system has filtered down to our young groups and it makes us implementing the system a lot easier.”
The first inning of the game was significant in that both teams threatened but Conway couldn’t capitalize and Bryant did.
In the top half, McCall Dail and Jack Stroth led off with singles for the Wampus Cats. The moved up on a chopper back to Jackson off Jordan Wicks’ bat so there were two in scoring position with just one out.
But Jackson struck out clean-up hitter Cade Tucker on a 3-2 pitch. Grayson Pinkett drew a walk to load the bases. The inning ended, however, when Matt Lloyd hit a bouncer to second that Bryant’s Tucker (Seth) made a nice play on, flipping to shortstop Jake East for the force.
“I really wasn’t nervous because it reminded me of the 2014 season when I threw against Conway in the semifinals and I walked the bases loaded with no outs,” Jackson said, recalling his 2-0 shutout as a sophomore. “I was thinking, if they do score a run, they just score one and we have an incredible offense. And, honestly, I had incredible defense tonight. If they’d scored one, I’d been all right with it. I like to throw shutouts but I just had to leave it all up to my defense.”
Likes to throw shutouts indeed. By blanking the Wampus Cats on Friday, Jackson finishes his high school career never giving up a run in State tournament play over four years, a streak of 23 1/3 innings.
“He was going to pitch his butt off no matter what,” Lee said. “I wasn’t worried about him. He was going to pitch out of it and he did.”
Bock advised, “After he got out of the first inning, I was not concerned. During the first inning, I was concerned. They were just laying off breaking balls and hitting fastballs right there. They did a good job of laying off of them. Then, once (Jackson) started locating some breaking balls, he was okay.”
In the bottom of the first, on-base machine Logan Allen (a .540 OBP for the season) was plunked by the first pitch thrown by Conway right-hander Matt Strickland.
It was a slight surprise that Strickland drew the starting nod but he had opened the tournament with a superb effort in a 1-0 win over Springdale.
Allen quickly stole second base and Dylan Hurt sacrificed him to third. That brought up Lee, who worked the count to 3-2, fouling off a couple of tough two-strike pitches before swatting an RBI single to left.
“They were just mixing it up real good,” he said. “It was a breaking ball. I just kept my hands inside and just ran it through the five hole.
“We knew it would be huge to go out and get a run first and get a lead,” he added. “By doing that, it took the monkey off our back. We just rode Zach all the way.”
Both teams went 1-2-3 in the second. In the bottom of the inning, Lloyd, the Conway second baseman, robbed Aaron Orender of a hit up the middle.
In the third, the Hornets had a close call. With two down, Jackson struck Wicks with a 2-2 pitch. On an 0-2 count, Cade Tucker lofted a routine-looking fly to right that Cates had a bead on. But, just before the ball got there, he slipped to his knees. But he was able to keep his eyes up and made the grab anyway.
In the bottom of the inning, the Hornets managed their second run. This time, Seth Tucker was hit by Strickland first delivery. He too stole second and when the throw got through the middle infielders, he scrambled up and sprinted to third. Cates followed by yanking an RBI single to right.
The top of the fourth brought two huge defensive plays by the Hornets. With one out, Lloyd stroked a double into the right-field corner. Though he might’ve been able to reach third on the play, he held at second as Cates hit Tucker, the cut-off man.
That proved fortuitous when Kolby Reck followed with a deep drive to center that Allen somehow chased down near the 400-foot mark. Had Lloyd been able to make it to third, he could have tagged and scored easily. As it was, he had to hold at second.
“All the momentum was going their way,” Jackson said. “If they’d have gotten that run in, it would’ve been a game changer. I was coming around to back up (home). I didn’t know if (Allen) was burned or if it was gone. I was like, ‘I shouldn’t have left that (pitch) up.’ I peak up and L.A. catches it. I was like, ‘No way.’ It really got me excited. I can’t thank him enough.”
Play two came moments later when Parker Gavazzi hit a ball into the hole at short that East, the Bryant shortstop, backhanded. Knowing he wasn’t going to throw out the speedy Gavazzi, East faked a throw as Lloyd took third. On the fake, Lloyd rounded third and looked toward the play in hopes of scoring a run on a late throw to first. But East, off his fake, whipped a throw to Garrett Misenheimer at third, who tagged out Lloyd to end the inning.
“That was awesome,” Jackson stated. “We always, if you can’t make a play, fake throw it because you never know if they’re going to round the bag and go home. We work on that almost every day and, obviously, it paid off. ‘Shaky’ (East) faked it. They thought he threw it to first and their guy at third came off, came back and we got him out. That was a game changer in itself.”
“That’s what they do right here,” Bock said. “Logan Allen made a fantastic grab and East made a big play too. Those guys have been there all year for us.”
Cahill fanned two in working a 1-2-3 home fourth.
In Conway’s fifth, East made another nice play to retire Braydon Leech ahead of a double by Dail. But Jackson left him there by striking out Stroth and Wicks to escape the threat.
Cahill started the bottom of the fifth with his third strikeout before Cates cracked his second single. A wild pitch allowed him to move to second then Allen hit a drive to right-center that both Gavazzi in center and Dail in right broke on. It what turned out to be one of those “I’ve-got-it, you-take-it” moments, Dail pulled off at the last second and the ball fell between them. Allen, hustling all the way, wound up with an RBI triple to make it 3-0.
Hurt was retired on a liner back to Cahill but, on the very next pitch, Lee unloaded.
“I knew we were going to stick to the plan,” he related. “They were kind of deliberate where they were going to throw the ball. They were going to try to attack lefties in with that left-handed run (from Cahill). I just put a good swing on it. That’s what we’ve been taught. It’s all been in the work we’ve been doing the last four years.
“It felt wonderful,” he allowed. “On this stage right here, to do it for my team and come out successful, it’s awesome, the greatest dream.”
Playing in a home park with about the same dimensions at Baum, the Hornets just hit five dingers this season. Lee hit four of them.
“You know we had two runs on two hit batsmen,” Bock noted. “Then, when E. Lee came up and hit that jack, all was good. I felt a little bit better about it.”
“Actually, it’s kind of funny because today we were talking during B.P. (batting practice),” Jackson said. “It was me and Beaux Bonvillain. He said, ‘So, who’s going to hit the home run this game?’ You know, Dalton (Holt) hit one in the 2014 game. I said, ‘I bet you $100 Evan Lee does.’ Then, sure enough, he drops it tank and Beaux comes to me and says, ‘You called it.’ That’s awesome.
“My confidence really strengthened up then,” he added. “I just went out, knew we had the game sealed and just threw strikes and let the defense back me up.”
Tucker and East worked a nifty doubleplay to erase a tough error in the top of the sixth as Jackson, who needed just three pitches in the second, got through the sixth with just five.
In the seventh, the right-hander retired the first two before giving up a pinch-hit double to Eli Davis. But the glimmer of hope that gave the Wampus Cats was extinguished when Dail bounded out to East.
Asked if he gave himself a moment during the game to think about playing all of his home games at Baum with the Razorbacks, Lee answered, “Not really. I was just so focused on winning this State championship. Now that this is over, I’ll focus on it as my new home. But to go out with a 7A State championship for Bryant? Unbelievable.”