It had been an every-other-year situation for the Bryant Hornets baseball team. They won titles in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016. So, the 2018 Hornets felt like it was their year to win it again.
But the Hornets, mostly made up of juniors including all-State selections Logan Chambers and Will McEntire, just missed earning a first-round bye in the State tournament — a key for almost any team that wins it all — and, in the second round, ran into the eventual champion Springdale Har-Ber.
The previous season, with that senior group this year, playing key roles as sophomores, they went all the way to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion, Cabot.
So, despite accumulating 41 wins over those two seasons, the Hornets’ hunger for a return to championship status is immeasurable.
The 2019 Hornets team was set to play a benefit scrimmage at Lake Hamilton and, like last year, saw it cancelled due to a wet playing field. They’ll try to officially open the season on Monday at Hot Springs Lakeside.
Along with the rugged 6A-Central Conference slate, the Hornets will play the rival Benton Panthers at a new venue this season. The Big Red Showdown will be held at Dickey-Stephens Park, home of the professional Arkansas Travelers Minor League team in North Little Rock, on Saturday, April 6,
The veteran senior group includes not only Chambers and McEntire but all-conference pick Coby Greiner, Logan Catton and Jake Wright. Senior Logan Grant has been a part of the group but has been hindered by injury his first two seasons of high school. Seniors also include Ryan Lessenberry and Braxton St. Clair
“Those guys have been around each other for a long time,” said third-year head coach Travis Queck. “They are very, very much a close-knit group, always together, always played together. These guys will fight for one another and they’re fun to watch when they’re rolling in practice.
“It’s just getting the consistency out of them and getting the younger guys to jump on in and overcome that freshman timidness,” he added. “The quicker we get that out of them, the healthier the program will be.”
Chambers, the team’s top hitter at .385 last season, will move from first base to shortstop this season. McEntire, the staff ace, figures to be one of Bryant’s two conference starters after going 4-4 last year with a 1.60 earned run average in a team-high 48 innings.
Greiner moves from short to centerfield where he hit .291 last spring. He also figures in as a top reliever on the team, starting the season as the closer. He was 3-1 with a 2.38 ERA last year and two saves.
Catton returns to third base and Wright moves from catcher to left field. He’ll also back-up at catcher where junior Cade Drennan will get the nod to start the season.
Sophomore star Austin Ledbetter will move from playing left and short to first base, alternating with junior Peyton Dillon. Sophomore Noah Davis gets the nod at second with junior Gage Start in right.
Grant, fully recovered, figures to get playing time in the outfield and on the mound.
“The best thing we’ve got is experience, not only this spring, but last summer and last spring,” Queck mentioned. “We’re not shocked when we get in a game. We don’t have anybody that hasn’t been in those situations at the plate.
“I think we’ll have more consistency,” he continued. “I think the top five in the lineup, we’ll be very dangerous. I think the bottom of the lineup, we can be very scrappy. That’s what we want, to be very effective and scrappy — quality, team at bats.”
Commenting on his projected starting defense, Queck said, “We’re going to start with Drennan behind the dish. Cade had a great summer for Legion and swung it real well. He’s always had a strong arm. His only flaws were some body language and some just consistency behind the dish, leadership behind the dish.
“We’re able to move Jake Wright to leftfield from catching but, when we need to, if we have a doubleheader, or we can always catch Cade and then catch Jake the next day,” he said. “It’s like a 1A, 1B situation. Either one of them could be a starter. But I think they both can help us out defensively. They both can help us out offensively.
“Jake’s one of those seniors who’s been asked to do a lot, the last three years,” the coach related. “He’s done it with flying colors, never checked up, never questioned anything. He’s always been a great teammate, a great player that I respect because of how he handles things.
“And I look forward to his senior year being what he expects,” he continued. “He’s a guy that played my position in football (linebacker) and we were able to pull off a State championship in football. I know Jake’s encouraging these seniors and everybody else on the team to follow suit and bring one home in baseball too.”
Regarding Catton at third, Queck said, “Logan Catton has been a vital contributor for the last three years. He’s another senior that is a coach’s player. He will do whatever you tell him to the best of his ability.
The move of Chambers to short helps Queck and his assistant Guy Brown set up an solid, everyday defense up the middle.
“Logan swings it from the left side, very, very strong bat, very good awareness around the dish,” said Queck. “Defensively, he’s come a long way, and he’s been everywhere. We’ve asked him to do a lot the last three years. He definitely brings leadership to a vital position on the field. And he’s not a pitcher so we have a constant there.
Davis lends to that stability at second as well.
The two guys I can relate him to — not necessarily athletically and not necessarily defensively but with the type of energy they played with — are Ozzie Hurt and Korey Thompson,” Queck said of Davis. “He’s just a sparkplug. He’s going to fight tooth and nail. He’s not the biggest guy, like those two. But you know what you’re going to get and, I’ll tell you, every time Noah does something, it gets everybody going.”
Of first base, the coach said, “When Austin’s pitching, Peyton will play first. He had some quality games last year in which he was able to get some experience. Peyton’s also a pitcher that will be asked to throw some quality innings for us.
“Ledbetter moves from short to first,” he continued. “I think it’s a position where we have depth, so we moved him to a corner. When (Ledbetter) pitches, we don’t lose a beat (with Dillon). It’s a convenience factor for us.
“Austin’s a guy that can play anywhere so, if we get in a situation where we’re not getting production out of some positions, we can definitely make a change and I feel very confident about that,” Queck said.
While playing mostly short last year, Greiner took some practice time in center.
“I was like, you know what? He’s a natural,” Queck declared. “He’s not going to blaze you away, but I promise you he’s going to make more plays than he doesn’t. He’s going to be consistent.
“In right field, Gage Stark is going to start,” he continued. “Gage has done a lot. He started last year the first nine games.
“He’s made some strides defensively,” the coach added. “He’s always had a strong arm. He’s got, maybe, the most electric bat we have. That’s where he struggled last year, and I think Gage understands those struggles and attacked them this off-season. I look forward to Gage putting up some very, very big numbers for us.”
Regarding Grant, Queck said, “He’s another guy that will factor in in the outfield. Logan has been primarily a pitcher for us but played some defensive positions in Legion ball. His arm strength’s gotten a lot better, a lot healthier. And, offensively, he swung it well last summer. Logan will probably start off as a DH, but he will factor in a lot on the mound, just as Coby will.”
Along with Ledbetter, McEntire, Grant, Dillon and Greiner, Queck mentioned sophomore right-hander Garrett Wilson as an asset on the mound.
“We’ve got Brayden Knight, Zion Collins — we’ve got a whole host of arms,” Queck said, adding that he’s looking forward to getting lefty Aiden Adams once basketball is over. We’ve got a couple of other arms that I look forward to have helping us but, again, we’ve got to see them out there. And if we can keep our defense lined up in the middle of the field without having to interchange guys, that’s going to be huge for us.
“The only problem is, beyond the top four or five, they just haven’t had the reps out here in this situation,” the coach stated. “They’re going to get their reps in the JV games and work their way into the varsity games. They’re going to have to throw games early in the season and they’re going to be asked, towards tournament time and towards the end of the season, to come in and get an out, to get three outs, to get us an inning or something. Their roles will be very vital to our success. We’ve just got to get them on the mound.
“So, these early games, it’s kind of a hindrance when you’ve got rain and weather, because you lose those opportunities,” he said. “But, we go down to Texas, and we’ve got five games where we’re going to need to see those guys. It’s going to be a good thing for us.”
Regarding Monday’s game at Lakeside, Queck said, “We’ll probably start with Ledbetter for the first two (innings), then McEntire for two, then we’ll go with Dillon, Grant and finish with Greiner.”
He said he hoped that Greiner can step right back into that closer’s role.
“That closer role, he has to come in and be able to locate and throw strikes,” Queck explained. “It can’t be a guy where one day he’s here and the next he’s not. And a guy that bounces back, a guy that can throw 25 pitches and come back the next day.
“Colby’s been that guy for us,” he asserted. “He’s done a very good job to the extent that, when we needed him to, he’d come in early and throw five, six innings in relief and do a dang good job for us.”
Queck was anxious to see his team get the season started.
“I know they can do it,” he said. “I’ve seen it. But there’s a difference whenever that light switch is on. We try to make it like it’s a game time in practice. So, they’ve got some of it, but when there’s another team lined up, the lights are on, it’s a little bit different.”
As of now, the Hornets’ home opener will be Tuesday, March 5, against Central Arkansas Christian. Conference play commences on March 12 at home against Fort Smith Northside.