SPORTS>> Bears battle back again
By RAY BENTON
Leader sports editor
In a game that featured almost everything imaginable, including a last-inning comeback, the Sylvan Hills Bears claimed their second state championship in three years Saturday night with an 8-5 victory over Jonesboro at the University of Arkansas.
Squeeze plays and home runs came in twos. There was a triple play, a pitch off a batters’ head, and even an appeal that the shot to the head was taken on purpose by the batter.
Nothing from the Bears-Hurricane matchup was left to be desired. And while Sylvan Hills faithful have grown accustomed to winning every year, no championship was sweeter than this one.
This Sylvan Hills team is nearly void, save two, of starters from either of the two previous state championship contenders the two years before. Those two teams were playing against class AAAA competition and were considered more talented than this team, which was playing in class AAAAA after the school moved up on the last cycle.
Everyone knew that Sylvan Hills would compete. It always does. But few gave this crop of Bears a second thought when considering contenders for a state championship.
That is, few outside the tight circle of Bears that make up the Sylvan Hills roster.
“I knew when we beat Bryant that we could beat Sylvan Hills,” Beard designated hitter Kody Sanders said. It was a thought almost unanimously echoed by every other player, but not head coach Denny Tipton.
“I was concerned about us getting past that emotional high of beating Bryant,” Tipton said. “You can’t beat Jonesboro if you don’t forget about Bryant, is what we told them all week.”
The Bears went to the plate in the top of the seventh inning trailing 5-4 and had the top three in the lineup coming up. Leadoff hitter Hayden reached on an error and two-hole hitter Chase Elder was hit in the head by a Jack McGrath curveball. Jonesboro appealed that Elder intentionally got in the way of the pitch, but the appeal was overruled and Elder took first base.
That brought up Brandon Eller. Eller was 3 for 3 with a home run and two RBIs and Jonesboro called timeout to discuss what to do with the senior shortstop.
Tipton called Miller and Elder over to third, where one of the most crucial decisions of the game was made, a decision that turned the tide in the game.
Tipton slipped the idea of a double steal, rather than bunt his hottest hitter. Miller assured Tipton that if he made the call, he could take third base.
“He told me he’d get it so I called it,” Tipton said. Miller, indeed, made it and Elder slid safely into second. Tipton pumped his fists and yelled encouragement at Eller, who now had to runners in scoring position.
“I really felt like that put Jonesboro on the ropes,” Tipton said. “I sort of knew we had ‘em at that point., even without having a hit yet.”
Jonesboro coach immediately decided not to pitch to Eller and intentionally walked him to get to first baseman Matt Presson. Presson was 0 for 3 at the time, but used the Jonesboro strategy as motivation for himself.
“I wasn’t surprised by it but I defiinitely was motivated by it,” Presson said. “Brandon was killing the ball, but I still tried to take it personally.”
Presson took the plate expecting a first-pitch curveball, and got it. He ripped it for an RBI single to right field to tie the game.
After Austin Gwatney hit into a fielder’s choice that got Elder thrown out, Shawn Bybee laid down a perfect bunt that scored Eller on a squeeze play to give the Bears the lead, and ultimately, the win, the team’s second state title in three years.
Brandon Eller, the only player to start on all three teams to advance to the state championshp game, and was Saturday’s MVP, said this one beat the others.
“This one was better because no one thought we were going to be any good this year,” Eller said. “It’s always more fun when you’re able to prove everybody wrong.”
Bybee summed it up more simply. “I just know it’s probably the greatest feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”