Leader Blues

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

SPORTS>>Class A in place of old for Gwatney program

Leader sports editor

The Gwatney Chevrolet class A American Legion team is in a situation that no Jacksonville baseball team has been for several years. It is in the finals of the Zone 3 tournament without a loss, and playing a team it has already beaten 12-5 earlier in the tournament.

The Gwatney team advanced to the championship round with a 12-6 victory over Cabot Sunday evening at Maumelle. The championship round was originally set for Monday night, but was rained out for two days and rescheduled for 5 p.m. tonight in either Maumelle, Conway or Jacksonville.

There hasn’t been a Jacksonville American Legion team advance to the state tournament in this century, and now Conway is left with the task of beating Gwatney twice in one day in order to advance to next week’s state tournament.

A new rule this year automatically puts the state tournament host in the state tournament, which means that if the state tournament host doesn’t reach the finals of its zone tournament, only that zone’s champion will advance to state. This year North Little Rock hosts the class A state tournament, so the Colts will play in state. That means that the Zone 3 runner up loses its normal spot in state to North Little Rock.

Neither Jacksonville coach Travis Lyda, nor Conway likes the set up, but Jacksonville has been focused on winning the tournament anyway.

“It’s been a while since Jacksonville baseball has been in this situation,” Lyda said. “I don’t think these kids are getting caught up in all that other stuff. They’re just out here worrying about winning.”

Winning is indeed what the team has been doing. The Gwatney team has averaged exactly 12 runs per game through four games in the tournament. The low game was a 7-5 thriller against North Little Rock in the second round. The high was a 17-4 shellacking of Morrilton in the tournament’s opening game. Two 12-run efforts followed in wins over Conway and Cabot. The Chevy Boys have given up exactly five runs per game.

“When you’re averaging a six or seven run margin you’re doing at least some things right,” Lyda said after Sunday’s win over Cabot. “We’re still not playing as good as we could be playing. At one point and time or another, we’ve gone to sleep in every game so far.”

That lull came in the later stages of its second round game. Jacksonville led North Little Rock 7-1 through five innngs, but the Colts rallied to make it 7-5 in the sixth.

In the seventh, North Little Rock loaded the bases with one out, but pitcher Clayton Fenton got a strikeout and a routine grounder to second base to preserve a complete-game victory.

“He’s just a tough kid and a competitor,” Lyda said. “That umpire had the smallest strike zone I’ve ever seen, and earlier in the year that probably would have frustrated him quite a bit. He stood out there, toughened up and threw the ball where he had to call strikes. That’s one kid that you can say has grown up a lot this summer.”

Despite the small strike zone, Fenton finished the game with a 6-1 strikeout to walk ratio.

On Saturday, Jacksonville beat the Log Cabin Democrat team 12-5 on the strength of a huge sixth inning. Jacksonville saw a 5-0 lead disintegrate into a 5-5 knot in the fifth. It answered with seven in the sixth.

“We’ve won in a lot of different ways, but we’ve always found a way to get the job done,” Lyda said. “We just want to make sure we keep doing them. We want state.”

Conway has played the entire tournament with the advantage of not having to use a pitcher in the first round. Greers Ferry got the first-round schedule mixed up and didn’t show up for its game on Thursday, resulting in a 7-0 forfeit.

The Log Cabin team used its ace against Greenbrier on Friday, and started its No. 2 against Jacksonville on Saturday. It used three pitcher in a last-inning comeback win over North Little Rock, but the rain delay helped the team rest its key hurlers.
“That helped them more than it did us because we’ve basically got all our pitchers ready,” Lyda said.

A Jacksonville win puts them in the state tournament, which begins Thursday at Burns Park.