Panthers fall short in semis

BENTON – After getting down 2-0 early in the quarterfinals of the 6A State Tournament to Russellville on Friday, the South No. 1 seed Benton Panthers scored 10 unanswered runs to win 10-2 to advance to the semifinals against the East No. 2 seed Jonesboro Golden Hurricane on Saturday. The Hurricane would jump on the Panthers for six runs in the first four innings, and though the Panthers fought back, Benton couldn’t finish the comeback falling 6-5 and wiping away the Panthers’ hopes for a matchup with Greenwood in the 6A State Championship at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville on Saturday.
“We just ran out of time,” Benton Coach Mark Balisterri said. “I think if we could have stretched the game, got it into extra innings, we would have been OK.”
With the Panthers (22-5) down 6-4 going into the bottom of the seventh, senior Carson Holloway fouled out to right field and freshman Colton Nix flew out to right field for the first two outs. Freshman catcher Brinson Williams, who finished the day 3 for 3, doubled to left field on the first pitch of his at-bat. With two outs, the game should have been over on senior Grayson Chilton’s grounder to third base, but a bad throw for an error allowed courtesy runner Drew Dyer to score to get within 6-5. But senior Jack James would ground out to short to end the game.
“He hit the ball straight up the middle and the shortstop just made a good play on it,” Balisterri said of James’ contact. “I told them as many rocks I picked up off the field this year, maybe if I would have left one or two it (the grounder) would have hit it.”
But it was the beginning of the game which bit the Panthers. JD Rainwater put the Hurricane up 2-0 with a 2-run homer to right field in the first inning. Senior Panther starting pitcher, left-hander Carson Holloway, would retire 10 batters in a row before giving up a two-out infield single to third base in the fourth inning, which was very close play at first base.
“In the fourth inning we get two outs and it’s a bang-bang play at first base,” Balisterri said. “He beat it out by half a step and they came up big and scored four on us.”
After the infield single, Holloway would hit a batter and give up an RBI single to Sam Becot, an RBI single to Aaron Fitz and a 2-run double to Reed Wingo to give the Hurricane a 6-0 lead.
Senior Blake Nations would single to start the bottom of the fifth inning, and after an out, Nations went to second on sophomore Colby Johnson’s single. Holloway would knock Nations in for the Panthers’ first score, Nix would single to left field to make it 6-2, and Williams would double to left field for 2 RBI and a 6-4 Panther deficit.
“He was seeing the ball today real well and I wish he could have batted three or four more times,” Balisterri said of Williams. “He did a super job and he’s done a great job all year long behind the plate handling these pitchers. For a freshman to be able to go in there and handle the pitchers like he did, he stepped it up big.”
As for Benton’s comeback, it didn’t surprise Jonesboro Coach Mark Dobson.
“It was an unbelievable game,” Dobson said. “We jumped on top of them and they’re really tough and they turn around and bounce right back and jump right back on us. I’m real proud of our kids for holding it together in an emotional situation like that. We just held them off long enough.
“You better expect it when you play Benton,” Dobson continued, “because they’re obviously extremely strong, a great team, they fight like crazy and they weren’t going to give up, so it was no shocker that they responded they way that they did.”
But the Panthers just couldn’t finish the comeback as Holloway picked up the loss giving up six runs on 11 hits in six innings, and struck out four.
“Holloway just kept battling,” Balisterri said. “We did all this (made it to the semifinals) with our best pitcher (Coulton Lee had a back injury), hadn’t pitched in a month, it hurt not having him, but my other pitchers stepped it up big time. They did a great job. It was a tough way to lose, but it happens.
“Give credit to Jonesboro. They made some big plays when they had to and came up with some really big hits. They did enough to where we just couldn’t quite get there. I’m very proud of my young men. they did a great job.”
Balisterri couldn’t say enough about the way his seniors led the way for the Panthers all season.
“These seniors were truly leaders,” he said. “We had 10 seniors and when you have 10 seniors, they’re not all going to get to play all the time. They were very unselfish. That’s what I characterize them as when I think about that group.”
Behind Williams’ 3 of 3 day, Nations went 2 for 3 with a run, Nix went 1 for 4 with a run and RBI, and Johnson and Holloway each went 1 for 3, with Holloway adding an RBI. Senior left-hander Justin Vincent pitched a scoreless seventh inning.
For Jonesboro, Aaron Fitz, William McCauly, and Wilson Muff each went 2 for 4, Rainwater went 1 for 3 with his 2-run homer, and Wingo went 1 for 4 with 2 RBI.
Balisterri spoke of how close the Panthers have come to making the state championship since winning it all in 2009.
“In 2010 when (the seniors) were freshman, we got beat in the semis by one run. 2012 and 2013 we got beat in the semis by one run. I just want them to realize how close we could have been in the state championship game 4 out of the last 5 years. I’m proud of that.
“I want to be in the state championship game, but our team has been there every year. We keep knocking on the door, knocking on the door, but the last few years we haven’t been able to open it up and go get it. With what they (seniors) left these guys and the young players we have coming back, hopefully we can come back and be right here again next year.”