Final Sting: Hornets make State Finals for third straight year

NORTH LITTLE ROCK - The Central No. 2 seed Bryant Hornets will be making their third consecutive trip to the 7A State Championship game after handling the West No. 1 seed Bentonville Tigers 9-0 on Monday afternoon in the semifinals at Vince DeSalvo Stadium at Burns Park in North Little Rock. The game was originally scheduled for Saturday, but inclement weather postponed it.

Without their Head Coach Kirk Bock because he was thrown out of the Hornets 8-7 extra-inning victory over Fayetteville on Friday, Bryant (24-7) took advantage of four unearned runs early in the contest to get the lead and the momentum.

“I thought our guys played hard,” Assistant Coach Elliott Jacobs said. “I challenged them in three areas. The first one was mental toughness, the second was hard work and the third one was execution. I thought, for the most part, we did all three of them well. I told them if we can do those three things well, we should win.”

Senior center fielder Tyler Nelson drew a one-out walk in the top of the first inning, but was erased when senior third baseman Jordan Taylor grounded it to the first baseman, who threw to the shortstop for a 3-6-1 double play.

The Hornets would not be denied in the top of the second, though, as senior designated hitter Dylan Cross singled to left field, senior first baseman Josh Pultro was hit by a pitch and junior catcher Hayden Lessenberry singled to left field to load the bases with no outs.

Senior second baseman Ozzie Hurt hit Bentonville starting pitcher Zach McKnight’s first offering to center field for a sacrifice fly and a 1-0 Bryant lead. Junior right fielder Hayden Daniel singled to left to load the bases again, and with two outs, leadoff hitter Trevor Ezell grounded it to the third baseman, who made an error allowing two runs to score for an early four-run lead for the Hornets.

On the other side of the mound, Bryant junior Nate Rutherford retired the first six batters he faced before giving up a single to start the bottom of the third. Rutherford struck out the next two batters and induced a fly out to get out of the inning.

Rutherford would go on to pitch a complete-game shutout for the win, giving up five hits, no walks and striking out five, while throwing 90 pitches.

“We thought JT (Taylor) could go today, but Nate looked real good his last start,” Jacobs referenced to Taylor throwing 67 pitches of relief against Fayetteville. “[Rutherford] keeps the ball down; we knew we would get a lot of ground balls out of him. He doesn’t walk a lot of people and we knew we had JT and Tryce Schacilin if Nate couldn’t, but dude did a heck of a job. He was the all-star tonight.”

The Hornets would score two unearned runs in the top of the third when an error each by the third baseman and shortstop allowed Cross and Pultro to reach with one out. Lessenberry singled to load the bases and Hurt picked up a four-pitch walk for an RBI to score Cross, and junior left fielder Tyler Green got another four-pitch walk to score Pultro for a 6-0 Hornets’ lead.

“We’re going to see a lot of pitches, we’re going to get hit, we’re going to get walked,” Jacobs said. “We get a lot of runs from that. I was real proud of our hits with one and two outs. We did a good job of driving them in. We haven’t done that the last couple of months. We really focused on that today and really got the job done.”

Rutherford had a man reach third base in the bottom of the fifth after reaching on an error and went to third on a single to right field to put runners at first and third with one out. Rutherford struck out Kory Keithley and got Austin Haggard to ground out to Taylor at third to get out of the inning.

Consecutive one-out singles got Rutherford in trouble in the bottom of the sixth, but a 4-6-3 double play got him out of the jam. The Hornets turned three double plays in the game behind Rutherford.

While Bryant was getting out of jams in the field, Bentonville couldn’t get out of those jams because of its own doing. Nelson and Taylor walked to start the top of the fifth and Nelson scored on Pultro’s single to left field to make it 7-0, and three straight one-out walks in the top of the seventh led to two runs when Ezell hit a two-run single to right field to make it 9-0.

The Tigers walked eight Hornets and also hit a batter, gave up seven hits and committed four errors to help Bryant’s cause.

Lessenberry led the Hornets with two hits, going 2 for 4, and Daniel went 1 for 2 with two runs and had three of the Hornets seven stolen bases. Junior Marcus Wilson scored two runs and had two stolen bases in his pinch-running duty.

“There were a few things they did that we thought we could take advantage of,” Jacobs said of the Hornets running on the Tigers.
Hurt added a run and two RBIs while going 0 for 1 with two walks and a sacrifice fly, Pultro was 1 for 4 with two runs and an RBI, and Cross was 1 for 4 with two runs.

Going to the State Championship the past two seasons, winning in 2010, but getting runner-up last year to Conway, Jacobs said the team has spoken about wanting the winning sensation this year.

“We talked about that third year, but we don’t want the feeling we had last year,” Jacobs said. “We want the feeling we had two years ago. And, I challenged them. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; how bad do you want it?
“We have one more game to go, the one that matters. We’ll see how hard we work this next week and how bad we want it.”

The Hornets will take on the West No. 2 seed Rogers-Heritage War Eagles, which defeated Conway 3-2 on Monday. Bryant will take on Rogers on Friday at 2 p.m.