CHAMPS! Hornets take 2nd title in 3 years

FAYETTEVILLE – The Bryant Hornets are the new 7A State Champions after defeating the Rogers Heritage War Eagles 4-2 on Friday afternoon at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville. The Central No. 2 seed Hornets needed just four hits to score four runs, taking advantage of the No. 2 seed War Eagles’ six walks and three hit batters. It was the Hornets second State Title in the past three years, making it all three years, but losing to Conway last year.

“The kids just persevered all year,” Bryant Coach Kirk Bock said. “We had some bumps in the road and they took them all in stride and went on. They did a great job.”

Junior relief pitcher Nate Rutherford was named the 7A Championship Most Valuable Player for pitching four scoreless innings of relief, striking out four and walking one without a hit for the win. Rutherford got the win in the Hornets previous victory, a 9-0 semifinal win over the Bentonville Tigers on Monday where he pitched a complete-game shutout giving up five hits and no walks, while striking out five.

“It was huge what he did against Bentonville in that shutout, and today we were thinking on starting [Rutherford], but he was coming off three days’ rest and didn’t know exactly how far he could go,” Bock said. “We brought him in in the fourth instead of giving him a start.”

For the 2012 State Tournament, Rutherford pitched 11 scoreless innings, gave up just five hits and a walk, and struck out nine.

“He did a good job,” Bock said. “When he’s rotating and keeping the ball down, they’re going to hit ground balls.”

Bryant defeated the Fayetteville Purple Dogs 8-7 in an extra-inning quarterfinal game where Bock was ejected from for arguing with the umpire. Since Bock had been ejected in a game earlier in the season, he couldn’t coach the next two games, which ended up being the semifinal and final.

It didn’t start well for the Hornets (25-7) as three consecutive one-out hits off of Bryant senior starter Tyler Nelson led to two runs in the top of the first. Blake Baxendale doubled with one out and Hunter Wood hit Nelson’s first pitch to him to center field for an RBI single to put the War Eagles on top 1-0. Wood stole second and went to third on Forrest Ward’s single to center.

Wood scored when Nelson balked to make it a 2-0 Rogers Heritage lead, but Nelson picked off Ward at second base and struck out Jayme Lovelace to get out of the inning without any more damage.

The Hornets would not be held down, though, as sophomore shortstop Trevor Ezell led off Bryant’s half of the inning reaching on an error by the shortstop. The two-hole hitter Nelson walked and senior third baseman Jordan Taylor sacrifice bunted the runners to second and third with one out.

Senior designated hitter Dylan Cross was hit by a pitch to load the bases, and senior first baseman Josh Pultro hit a two-run double to left field to tie the game at 2-apiece.

“That bailed us out right there,” Bock said of Pultro’s double. “He’s another one that had some bumps in the road there, but persevered through the playoffs. He did a great job.”

Nelson would settle down after the first inning and give up just two hits and a walk the next two scoreless innings until Rutherford came in to clean it up. Nelson finished giving up two runs on five hits and a walk in three innings pitched, while striking out two.

“He did a good job,” Bock said of Nelson. “He got up in the zone a little bit, but did a great job toughing it out. He did a great job. He got to where we could get to Nate and that’s what we needed him to do. He played his role extremely well. And he got the big RBI for the third run which ended up being the winning run.”

Bryant added a run in the bottom of the second when Ezell reached on a one-out, four-pitch walk, stole second base and went to third on a balk. Nelson knocked him in with a sacrifice fly to right field to give the Hornets a 3-2 lead.

Bryant would add another run in the bottom of the fifth when Pultro singled to right field and went to second on senior second baseman Ozzie Hurt’s one-out single to left field.

Pultro went to third on a fielder’s choice and scored when junior right fielder Hayden Daniel got caught in a rundown, but Pultro scored before Daniel was tagged out.

After their two-run first inning, the War Eagles couldn’t get anything going as no one reached second base the rest of the game. A leadoff single in the top of the third inning by Dalton McKaughan was quelled when a fly out to right field and a nice play by Taylor at third base resulted in a double play when he caught a line drive and threw quickly to first base to double up McKaughan.

Rutherford came in on relief in the top of the fourth and was perfect besides a leadoff walk to McKaughan in the top of the sixth.

McKaughan was erased when Taylor started another double play, this time a 5-4-3 double play for two outs. Wood popped out to Ezell at shortstop for the third out and Rutherford got the War Eagles in order, including a strike out where junior catcher Hayden Lessenberry threw the pitch to Pultro to first base for the last out where the team fled the dugout to celebrate their second 7A Title in the past three years.

Pultro had two of the Hornets four hits, going 2 for 3 with two RBIs and a run. Hurt and Daniel each went 1 for 3 to round out Bryant’s hits. Without a hit, Ezell walked two times and scored two runs and Nelson also walked two times and had an RBI.

Bock spoke of how the Hornets didn’t skip a beat when he couldn’t be in the dugout coaching his team.

“The system that we have in place is a good system,” he said.
“If you take something out of that system, that little bump in the road, someone just fills in for you. Assistant Coach [Elliott] Jacobs did a tremendous job the last two games and it just kept on going like nothing was missing.

“We lost Cross (sore shoulder) for a month as far as throwing. Well, Nate comes in and picks up right where Cross left off. He did a tremendous job. The system works very, very well. This program and the system that we’re running does not rely on one person and that’s what’s so good about it.”