FAYETTEVILLE — It was the shot heard around the state. Down one with two on, two out, a full count and freshman Breanna Langford at the plate, Benton’s 6A title hopes looked to be all but demolished Friday at Bogle Park in Fayetteville. That was until Sheridan pitcher Sydney Bonner left a hanger out over the plate that Langford tomahawked into left field for a 3-run, go-ahead blast to put the Lady Panthers in front for good.
The unlikely home run, Langford’s first of the year, sent Benton to the bottom of the seventh inning with a 4-2 lead. But despite her going yard, she still had to get three outs in the pitching circle. With two Yellowjackets hovering on base and two outs, the freshman sealed the deal for Benton with a forced fly out to center for the school’s first 6A State Championship since 2005.
“What a way to win a state championship,” Head Coach Heidi Cox said. “It is the unselfishness in this team. They believe in each other and never gives up. We were down 2-0 and got a little hope and then Bre steps up and works the count and demolishes a rocket. I am so proud of her and for each and every one of them.”
Benton made it a 1-run ballgame in the seventh after Hannah Ward reached on a single and later scored on a sacrifice fly by senior Stevi Muilenburg. Benton collected three straight hits following a fly out by Delaney Bono to lead off the inning. Karrie McCurry and Herbie Herbner each singled before coming home on Langford’s home run.
“You are down 2-to-nothing and you think ‘this is it, it could be over’ but for them to believe and have hope and take pride I am just so proud for them,” Cox said.
Cox added that in her 13-year coaching career she has never seen a bigger hit, given the situation.
“Not off the top of my head I cannot think of a bigger hit,” Cox said. “What a monster. (Langford) is just so humble. If you asked her about it she would say she just wanted to do it for the seniors.”
To go along with the game-winning bomb, Langford earned the win and was also named most valuable player for the 6A tournament. She was nearly speechless after the game.
“I’m just excited,” Langford said.
The homer left the field so quick that Langford stopped at second base, but quickly headed for home as all three umpires signaled for her to touch them all.
“I thought it was just a double,” Langford added.
Benton had plenty of chances early, however. The Lady Panthers stranded six runners in the first four innings. It was the third that looked to have cost Benton. Herbner singled to lead off, but was later caught at third base trying to advance on a ground ball with no outs.
Langford was gunned down at second trying to steal on a delay that resulted in nothing for the Lady Panthers. Benton left two runners and came away with no runs in the frame.
“You never want to second guess yourself as a coach,” Cox said. “Herbie laid down a great bunt then Stevi laid down a perfect bunt and (Sheridan’s) Hunter Clark did a good job because she knew she couldn’t get Stevi out.”
Clark decided to go to third to get the lead runner, Herbner, instead.
“I sent Herbie and couldn’t get her to stop fast enough and it was my fault and I take full responsibility,” Cox said. “I am just so proud that they were able to pick me up and fix my mistakes. I take full credit for the base-running errors over there.”
There was no score until Sheridan finally crossed twice in the fifth, taking advantage of a Benton error and a bases-loaded walk to lead 1-0. The Jackets scored their second run of the inning on a ground-out RBI from Corbin Talbert.
Benton went 1-2-3 in the fifth and sixth. Lady Panther hitters saw just four pitches in the fifth with all three batters grounding out.
The high-powered offense of Sheridan had a terrible time against Benton starter Anna Hurley. The Jackets got just four base runners on in the first four innings. Hurley pitched around a lead-off double in the third and escaped a two-on, one-out jam in the fourth to stay scoreless. Hurley was lifted for Langford with one out in the fifth.
The senior hurler finished her night with a no-decision, allowing one earned run on three hits and a walk in her final game as a Lady Panther.
“Anna Hurley did an outstanding job on the mound to keep them off-balance,” Cox said.
Langford gave up no runs on three hits for the win in her short outing. She also closed out Benton’s 2-1 semifinal win over Russellville last weekend.
After losing to Sheridan twice for their only losses in 7A/6A South play this season, the Lady Panthers held the Jackets to just five hits Friday. Benton lost by a combined 11-2 to Sheridan in the regular season and had dropped four straight to the conference foe entering Friday, dating back to last season.
Benton scattered seven hits with Langford leading the charge going 1 for 4 with three RBI and a run scored.
Clark tallied Sheridan’s lone RBI with a 1-for-3 showing in the finals.
Benton says goodbye to six seniors with Muilenburg, Hurley, McCurry, Ashton Currey, Rachel McCallister and Molly Brannon all heading to college next year. Muilenburg, Currey and Hurley will all be playing softball in college after committing as juniors last season.
“It was the leadership from them all that kept us alive,” Cox said. “They have worked so hard all year and believed in the younger crew. We have four freshmen that are on the varsity team that have gotten plenty of playing time.”
The seniors had made two trips to the 6A Finals before finally winning their third. Benton made the finals in 2011 and 2013, but had to settle for second place in both.
The Lady Panthers finish the season with a 22-5 overall record while Sheridan falls to 28-2. The Jackets had won 21 straight entering Friday.