FAYETTEVILLE - The 2013 season has been like none other for the Benton Lady Panthers. After losing a 2-1 heartbreaker in the state semifinals in 2012 to Russellville, Benton was forced to regroup and start working on another run this season. After tragedy struck in November when Lady Panther Drew Melton died in a car accident, the Lady Panthers had a long road ahead once again.
But after overcoming adversity and growing as a team, Benton found themselves back on the road to success and in the 6A State Finals. After blowing through the first and second round, Benton was set to battle an old foe in the Russellville Lady Cyclones once again, this time in the finals. But up against one of the top pitchers in the state in Andrea Kendrick, Benton had a tough time and ultimately fell 2-1 to finish runner-up for the third time in four years.
“We are very honored and humbled to be [in the finals],” Head Coach Heidi Cox said. “It has been a long year and I am just so happy for the kids. After all of the things they have overcome and all of the growing they have had to do, they are going to be much stronger young women. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
Benton starter Jessica Franklin fell into a bit of trouble right out of the gate, allowing the bases loaded in the first inning after a missed call at shortstop with two outs. Franklin escaped the inning unscathed, forcing Haley Frost to fly out to end the inning.
With the Lady Cyclones getting runners on and getting things started, the Lady Panthers’ bats were quiet for nearly the entire game. Kendrick sat Benton down in order through four, striking out eight over that span.
Taylor Maxwell led the fifth off with Benton’s first hit of the game to stall the slump. But after two pop out bunts and a fly out, Benton was finished through five.
“[Kendrick] is a great pitcher, great kid and so humble on the mound,” Cox said. “She shut us down. I mean wow.”
After an upsetting first inning, Russellville broke through in the second scoring one run on four hits all with two outs. The lone run was the first allowed by Benton in the state tournament this year. Kendrick singled in the inning to score Summer Percher to give her team to 1-0 advantage.
The Lady Cyclones continued to succeed in the third. Still up one, Russellville’s Frost crossed the dish for the second run of the game on an RBI from Percher to take a 2-0 advantage.
But Benton wasn’t through. After going down 1-2-3 in the sixth, the Lady Panthers made some noise in the seventh after shutting Russellville down in the top half. Second baseman Karrie McCurry stepped to the plate to lead the seventh off, stroking a double to centerfield for Benton’s second hit of the ballgame. A sacrifice bunt from Korie Parker moved McCurry to third, bringing Maxwell to the dish. Looking for another big hit, Maxwell was sent back to the dugout via the strikeout after putting together a strong at-bat.
Down to their last hope, the Lady Panthers got their first run and a second chance after an error put Ashton Currey on first and put a run on the board for Benton. Down just one with two outs, Jessica Hardig dug in and battled strong before striking out to end the game, sending Russellville to victory and the 6A State Championship.
“We have had a great year and this is a fire underneath you and it burns,” Cox said. “We are going to have a tough offseason because of this. You want to win it. But I had a great group of seniors. They were very talented and very fun. A great group to work with.”
Benton says goodbye to Franklin, Maxwell, Hardig, Parker, Sydnee Golman and Daphne Bono.
McCurry and Maxwell tallied Benton’s only hits, each going 1 for 3 at the plate. Franklin allowed two runs on eight hits and struck out three.
“Franklin pitched a really good game,” Cox said. “Congratulations to them. They put the ball in play and got hits when they needed them. We gave ourselves a chance. It could have been a different ballgame.”
Benton struck out 12 times in the loss.
With the loss, Benton finishes 28-7 overall on the year.
Kendrick was named the 2013 6A State Most Valuable Player.