ROGERS — Veterans Park in Rogers has not been very nice to the Bryant Hornets baseball team over the years.
The last time the State Tournament was held there, Bryant was coming off the 2012 State championship and a year away from the 2014 State title. They came into the tournament with a sparkling 26-5 record, 13-1 in conference play. And they were unceremoniously ousted by the Rogers Mounties, 12-2.
This year, the Hornets, ranked number one in the state, returned to the Park with a 27-4 mark, also 13-1 in league play, the top seed from the 6A-Central Conference. They were set to face North Little Rock, the 5 seed from the Central, whom the Hornets had defeated 8-4 and 3-2 during their regular season run through the league.
The Charging Wildcats, who came into the tournament with an 11-18 overall record, had just barely survived their opener on Thursday against Van Buren. An out away from being eliminated, with runners at first and second, a bloop off the bat of Bear Sparks landed between the pitcher and second base, Van Buren’s pitcher got to the ball and tried to get the force at third only to throw it away. The tying and lead runs scored. The stunned Pointers were retired in order in the bottom of the seventh.
And, instead of Van Buren, the Hornets drew North Little Rock for the third time. Going full Cinderella on the State tournament field, the Charging Wildcats stunned the Hornets 9-6 in 10 innings.
Meanwhile, on another field, 6A-West champion Fayetteville was wiped out of the tournament by the 5 seed from their league. Springdale Har-Ber sent the Bulldogs home with a 12-1 loss.
(As it turns out, it’ll be those two five seeds playing for the State title next weekend as North Little Rock ousted Bentonville West, 5-1, on Saturday and Har-Ber eliminated Cabot, 3-2. It’ll be the first time two 5 seeds have played for the title.)
Bryant never led in the game. The Hornets rallied to tie it 2-2 early and 6-6 late. They trailed 6-5 going into the bottom of the seventh inning. North Little Rock was running through pitchers, even using freshman starter Jordan Kelly twice. The Wildcats’ fourth change brought Jon Henry Maloch to the mound, but he proceeded to issue walks to Noah Davis and Austin Ledbetter.
The fifth pitching change brought in soft-tossing right-hander Cole Kimrey in as Bryant head coach Travis Queck brought in runners for Davis (Blaine Sears) and Ledbetter (Ryan Riggs).
Cade Drennan greeted Kimrey with a shot just inside the bag at third for an RBI double, tying the game. Lawson Speer came in to run for Drennan, the Hornets’ catcher and, with a base open, the Wildcats walked Gage Stark intentionally to load the bases.
So, the Hornets had the winning run at third with no one out. Kimrey proceeded to retire the next three Bryant batters without letting that winning run score. Two pop-ups, one by Jake Wright, called an infield fly when it wasn’t caught, was too close to the third-base line for Riggs to try to score. The other, by Peyton Dillon, came on a fine running catch in foul territory near the North Little Rock dugout by first baseman Luke Rice.
Kimrey ended the threat with a strikeout of Logan Grant on a borderline pitch.
“Two flyball guys,” Queck said, referencing Wright and Dillon. “I think they were over-trying instead of just reacting. Just go do what you do. That’s good enough. We should’ve just relied on our natural ability to do it.”
Neither team could score again until the top of the 10th. Ledbetter, who had pitched well after relieving starter Will McEntire with two out in the fourth, retired the first batter on a liner that first baseman Peyton Dillon caught with a dive to his right.
But, on a two-strike pitch, the next batter, Sparks, was plunked. A walk followed and, Ledbetter, after 77 pitches, was relieved by closer Coby Greiner. A walk on a 3-2 pitch loaded the bases. Maloch was then struck by a pitch to force in the go-ahead run without a hit.
A grounder to third resulted in a force at the plate then Greiner was a strike away from ending the inning. But Cauley fouled on a pair of 1-2 pitches then drilled a two-run single to center to make it 9-6.
The Hornets gave themselves a chance in the bottom of the inning as Sparks became the seventh Wildcats’ pitcher. With two down, Davis worked his fourth walk of the game. Ledbetter grounded a single up the middle to bring up the potential tying run. But Sparks induced a popup to second to end the game.
“Number one, I want to give credit to Coach (Randy) Sandifur,” said Hornets head coach Travis Queck, regarding his counterpart, who took over the North Little Rock job in mid-season after Brock Moore was fired. “Before the game, he had to make a tough decision with his team. He alerted me of that decision.
“I’m amazed for him to take over halfway through the year, at the discipline that he has got those kids under,” Queck continued. “Those kids were fighting to run through a wall and compete, scratch and claw. That’s a testament to that guy (Sandifur) right there.”
Regarding his Hornets, Queck said, “We just could never get into it. We just could never get on top. And the longer it played out, I was kind of worried that they’d break through.”
Asked if it was a disappointment to the team that it was North Little Rock for the third time rather than Van Buren or if they might’ve taken the Charging Wildcats too lightly, Queck said, “No. It’s my fault. As I’m preparing these guys, trying to get information on Van Buren — I pushed Van Buren because I felt like we knew North Little Rock.
“We weren’t overlooking North Little Rock,” he continued. “We had no reason to with a 3-2 win at our place just a week or so ago. I told them, they’re going to fight and scrap and claw. And North Little Rock pulled it off (against Van Buren) and did exactly what they were supposed to do and are very capable of doing, even tomorrow (against Bentonville West).”
The Wildcats were as fired up to start the game as any underdog. The Hornets were business-like and had a sparkling pre-game infield.
“We didn’t want to be too high or too low,” Queck commented. “When it was back and forth and back and forth, there was too much emotion. It takes too much out of you. I tried to be the even-keel person but North Little Rock was up the entire game. They had the energy the entire game.”
To start the game, however, Cauley reached on an error by Ledbetter at third on a hot one-hopper. DeShawn Cordova followed with a bunt that he beat out for a single. After McEntire struck out Rice, Grant Shahan blooped a single into shallow right to load the bases.
On the very next pitch, Sparks put a bunt down the first-base side that Peyton Dillon charged, looking to get the force at the plate. But the ball hit the ground and kind of stuck there. Dillon didn’t get his glove down all the way and ran through it. Sparks was safe at first and Cauley scored.
“Things we work on,” said Queck. “And I’ll take the blame because maybe I’m not pushing the details like North Little Rock was. And I’m going to fix that. It’s painful to say that because this was the seniors’ last game.”
McEntire struck out the next two to keep it to 1-0 and strand three.
Kelly, whom the Hornets hadn’t faced, set them down in order in the bottom of the first with both Davis and Ledbetter squaring the ball but flying out to center.
In the top of the second, Charlie Warren drew a one-out walk for the Wildcats. He stole second, tagged and went to third on Cauley’s fly to right then scored on a passed ball before Cordova bounced to second.
McEntire set down the middle of the Wildcats’ order in the top of the third and, in the home half, the Hornets finally got to Kelly. Dillon led off with a single and, with two down, Logan Chambers drilled a double to right center that chased Dillon home.
When Davis’ grounder to third was booted, Cauley relieved Kelly. But Davis took off to steal second and drew a throw from North Little Rock catcher Gray Smith as Chambers headed home. Both were safe, and the game was tied 2-2.
Davis, however, was stranded at second, the first of 13 the Hornets left on base in the game.
North Little Rock answered in the top of the fourth. With one out, Tanner Barnhart walked and Maloch slapped a single to right. Anticipating a throw home, Maloch got caught in a rundown between first and second, staying in it long enough for Barnhart to get to the plate and slide under the throw.
And, with Maloch at second, Cauley drilled a two-out RBI double to left to make it 4-2.
Bryant threatened in the bottom of the inning when Drennan singled and Speer came on to run. Stark sacrificed him to second and, with two out, Dillon cracked a single to left. Sparks charged the ball and fired home in time to nap Speer trying to score to end the inning.
After getting the final out of the fourth, Ledbetter surrendered singles to Shahan and Sparks with one out in the fifth. A wild pitch moved them to second and third so when Cody Bonds flew out to Wright in left, it was good enough for a sacrifice fly to make it 5-2.
Bryant’s fifth began with two outs. Chambers beat out an infield hit and stole second. Davis walked, and, after a wild pitch, Ledbetter singled in a run. Drennan was hit by a pitch to load the bases and Cauley gave way to Jared Wisley.
Davis scored on a wild pitch as Stark was drawing a walk. Wright followed with a blast to left-center that appeared to be destined to ricochet off the fence and drive in at least two. But Cauley raced into the gap and somehow flagged it down to end the inning.
After Ledbetter set down the Wildcats in order in the sixth, the Hornets tied it in the home half. Grant singled with one out, advanced to second on a wild pitch then stole third on a bang-bang play. Greiner came through with a sacrifice fly.
In the top of the seventh, Cordova got another bunt down and reached safely on a throw to first in the dirt. Rice slapped a single to left and Shahan’s sacrifice put runners at second and third. Sparks singled to left to give the Wildcats a 6-5 lead.
With Hayden Henson at the plate, Sparks took off on a steal of second but Drennan came up firing to third, picking Rice off for the second out. Ledbetter fanned Henson to set up the frustrating home seventh.
Ledbetter went on to retire eight in a row, easing through the eighth and ninth on just 11 pitches. Kimrey pitched around a two-out walk to Davis in the eighth. In the ninth, he walked Drennan. Stark hit a comebacker and Speer was forced out at second.
But Stark stole second and, with two down, appeared to be caught for the third out, trying to advance on Dillon’s grounder to third. But Stark evaded the tag. But, with runners at the corners, the Hornets were unable to get the key hit they needed, and the game went to the 10th.
“It puts a lump in your throat to say that you won’t have them again,” Queck said of his seniors. “Those guys, I just got done telling them, were thrown into a tough spot two years ago and battled their butts off to a semifinal. They’ve been here three years busting their butts for me and, to let them down like this, is gut-wrenching for me. And probably something that’ll push me further, to never let it happen again. These guys, I’m in debt to them.”