BENTON -- The Benton Lady Panthers proved that the third time really is the charm Saturday, beating the defending 6A champion Russellville Cyclones 2-1 in the 6A State Tournament semifinals.
Having lost to the Cyclones 2-1 in each of the last two postseasons, Benton kicked the monkey from its back and punched its ticket to Fayetteville for a second straight 6A final.
The win wasn’t just any victory for third-year Benton coach Heidi Cox, however. To her, this win ranks at the top.
“This is probably number one,” Cox said. “We talked about it early in the season. The state championship game is what you want to get to. There was some blood here because Russellville has had a great team the last couple of years and this one is great, too. To be able to put them out like they put us out, on our home field, is a great feeling.”
Benton used some timely hitting and great defense to advance. Going against one of the toughest pitchers in the state in Alabama-commit Andrea Kindrick, the Lady Panthers didn’t kill the ball, but did make the most of six hits with two doing the damage needed to win.
The victory didn’t come without a late-inning scare, though. Needing just three outs in the bottom of the seventh for the win, starting pitcher Stevi Muilenburg gave up two quick hits to batters that were a combined 0 for 4 with two strikeouts entering the inning. Muilenburg was lifted for freshman Breanna Langford who shut the door with three quick outs.
“You talk about tough,” Cox said. “She came in and got the job done. That combo of Stevi/Bre or Anna (Hurley)/Bre is working for us and we may use it again.”
Senior catcher Ashton Currey helped out big in the seventh, gunning Victoria Teague trying to take third base for the big first out of the frame. Currey gunned down two runners in the win.
“That was big-time,” Cox said. “She kept it low and got the runner (at third.) She took care of business. We have thrown the ball around a little this year and that right there was big-time.”
After not taking advantage of a lead-off single from Herbie Herbner in the first inning, Benton’s latter part of the lineup pushed across the game’s first run. After a lead-off single from Taylor Oglesby, Benton hitters struck out and grounded out before Hannah Ward reached on a walk to bring 9-hole hitter Karrie McCurry to the dish.
McCurry blooped a single to right field to bring home Oglesby and give Benton the early advantage. Ward ended the inning getting picked off at third.
Benton went quietly in the third and fourth, going 1-2-3 in each frame. But, Muilenburg was tossing like she was a top gunslinger in the state as well. Muilenburg’s performance wasn’t a cakewalk, however, as the senior had to pitch out of trouble in two of her first three innings.
After an easy first, Muilenburg snuck out of the second with a runner stranded at third before leaving two runners in scoring position in the third. Russellville left six runners on the paths in the game. Five in scoring position.
The Cyclones got a boost of confidence in the fourth with a leadoff blast from first baseman Shelbi Thompson to even the score 1-1. The opposite-field line drive barely cleared the wall in right to start the inning.
“Stevi said ‘that home run was my fault. I missed my spot,’” Cox said. “That right there is unselfish play. Can’t say enough about that.”
Benton answered in the fifth, using a leadoff double from Delaney Bono and a one-out sacrifice bunt from McCurry to set Herbner up for an RBI single to break the tie.
Bono and Maggie Carson stepped up big for Benton on defense, robbing Russellville of two hits with diving catches in the outfield. Carson brought in a lazy fly ball in the fourth, followed by Bono’s snag in the sixth.
“Maggie Carson, the freshman, coming in and making those kind of plays are the hardest things to catch,” Cox said. “Texas-Leaguers we call them. For her to layout and sacrifice herself for her teammates, that’s a true ballplayer right there.”
Benton left two on in the seventh without adding an insurance run. But that didn’t matter as the Lady Panthers held on for the win with Ward camping under a two-out fly ball in center to end the game.
Cox played it safe with Kindrick at the dish, intentionally walking the standout star three straight at-bats after she lined out on a screamer to center in the first.
“You have to pitch around her because she is dominate on the mound and at the plate,” Cox said. “We executed at the plate and did enough to win. I am so proud.”
Kindrick finished her night with eight strikeouts after ringing up 17 in the quarterfinals.
Herbner led Benton, going 3 for 4 with an RBI and a stolen base. Ogelsby, Ward and McCurry collected Benton’s other three hits in the win.
Muilenburg gave up one run on six hits and struck out three in six innings of work.
The win sets Benton up to face 7A/6A South foe Sheridan on Friday at 4:30 p.m. at Bogle Park. The matchup is one Cox was hoping her team would get after losing to the Yellowjackets twice in the regular season.
“I am very confident,” Cox said. “Now, they can hit and with Sydney Bonner on the mound it is going to be tough. They have got great defense behind them and it is not going to be easy. Our girls are going to compete and they want to win so bad.”
The Yellowjackets defeated Marion 7-2 in Saturday’s first semifinal match.
Sheridan High School is scheduled to graduate on Friday, too, which could cause a scheduling conflict. The Arkansas Activities Association is set to make a decision early this week.
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