NORTH LITTLE ROCK – Bryant starting sophomore Zack Jackson would walk the bases loaded in the first inning of a 7A State Tournament semifinal game on Monday, but he would not walk another in a complete-game 2-0 shutout of the Conway Wampus Cats at Burns Park in North Little Rock.
Jackson would get out of the inning unscathed and would not let another Conway runner to third base the rest of the game giving up just three hits, three walks and striking out seven in seven innings pitched for the win.
“Zack gutted it out,” Bryant Coach Kirk Bock said. “The first inning I talked to him and he said I just can’t find it but I will. I’m not going to lie, I had some doubts right there. [Pitching Coach Mark] Cain said [Jackson’s] got it so I just trusted the guys that work with him every day and he said he’s going to be alright, he just couldn’t find it in the beginning. He did a tremendous job.”
The win was the Hornets’ 21st consecutive and will pit Bryant against the Fayetteville Purple Dogs in the 7A State Championship game on Friday at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville, with first pitch coming at 4:30 p.m.
“It seems like it’s every other year,” Bock said. “We’re happy to be there. We’ve competed well against two good baseball teams and came out on top. We’ll do it one more time, maybe we’ll come out on top.”
The Hornets (27-2) defeated Fort Smith Southside on Saturday 5-0 behind junior Blaine Knight’s shutout and 11 strikeouts, and Knight will likely face the 31-3 Fayetteville team which beat Cabot 5-0 in the semifinals on Monday after Bryant’s win.
It was a pitchers’ duel throughout as Conway starting pitcher Matt Strickland was keeping Bryant at bay until the top of the fifth inning. Hornets’ senior Dalton Holt doubled to left field on Strickland’s first pitch of the inning and Conner Williams took over in relief. Bryant senior Korey Thompson laid down a sacrifice bunt, but Williams attempted to throw Holt out at third base and the attempt was wild. Holt scored on the error by the pitcher for the 1-0 lead and Thompson went to second base.
Lead-off man Trevor Ezell hit a long drive to left field out of the reach of the left-fielder for a double to score Thompson and the 2-0 lead was more than enough for Jackson.
“That was huge right there,” Bock said of the Conway error. “Any time we get with Conway, we both play fundamentally sound. If somebody makes a mistake, that’s going to be the difference in the ballgame. They happened to make one first in a crucial situation. We made ours late, but luckily Panda (Jackson) had enough gas in his tank to get us out of it.”
After giving up consecutive singles in the second inning, Jackson retired 15 of 16 Wampus Cats, with an error breaking up the succession, until Jackson gave up a one-out single in the bottom of the seventh. Bryant got a fly out to left field for the second out before a short pop up on the right side of the infield was muffed when second baseman Thompson ran into Holt at first to put runners at first and second with two outs. There was no panic in Jackson, though, as he struck out Jacob Adams on a change up to end the game and propel the Hornets to the 7A State Championship game.
“I wasn’t worried about it,” Jackson said of the late error. “We had a 2-0 lead. Runner on second? Big deal (Jackson said confidently). We had two outs. A ground ball, a force at second or first. K’ed him up, even better. My curve ball was my best pitch. I came in with a change (up) and only threw about five fastballs. Everything else was a curve or change.”
It was a quiet day offensively for the Hornets as they mustered just four hits on the day with Thompson and Jason Hastings each going 1 for 1, Ezell went 1 for 2 with the lone RBI, and Holt went 1 for 3.
As for the Hornets’ fourth trip in five tries to the 7A final (Bryant won two in 2010 and 2012), it’s Jackson’s first.
“I’ve never been in this situation,” he said. “I’m excited. Ready to be at Baum.”