SPORTS>>Gwatney drained after Texarkana
Leader sports editor
It may have only been a semfinal game, and the championship game that followed didn’t hold to the fairy-tale script, but Jacksonville won a gut-testing matchup with Texarkana Tuesday night to earn Gwatney’s first-ever trip to the Class A state championship game. The Gwatney Chevrolet squad, which had defied all odds in getting to that point, defied just a few more by upending the 40-5 Zone 2 champion Texarkana Razorbacks 11-8 to earn the right to play for the title.
Trailing 8-6 heading into the last inning, Jacksonville rallied for five runs, and 15-year-old relief pitcher Hayden Simpson overcame two leadoff walks in the bottom of the frame to thwart a Razorback rally and advance the team to the title game.
Jacksonville went to its bread and butter in the seventh inning, the bunt. Daniel Thurman started the rally by getting hit by a pitch. It was his first at bat in which he didn’t get a hit in the last two games and eight at bats. He went 4 for 4 in the previous game, and was 3 for 3 when he stepped to the plate in the seventh inning. After he was hit, A.J. Allen drew a walk. Nine-hole hitter Jeffrey Tillman bunted back to the pitcher, but the throw to first was off target, which allowed Thurman to score and the two runners to advance to second and third. Allen then scored on a wild pitch and Terrell Brown got a bunt single that also drove in Tillman. Jason Regnas walked with one out and Caleb Mitchell singled to left field to load the bases. With two outs, Hayden Simpson was hit by a pitch to drive in Brown, and Regnas scored on another wild pitch by relief pitcher Cantrell Hill to set the final margin.
“They made some mistakes that helped us, but we forced them to make a lot of those mistakes,” Jacksonville coach Travis Lyda said. “I called bunt after bunt, and they kept laying them down perfectly. Those boys were having to scoot and throw in a hurry to get outs. We put the pressure on them and they eventually started making errors.”
Jacksonville’s Class A team couldn’t overcome the depletion left by an emotional, gutsy and hard-fought come-from-behind victory over Texarkana in the semifinals, and lost 17-0 to Jonesboro in the state championship game Tuesday night at Burns Park.
Because of Gravette’s expulsion from the tournament, the Jacksonville-Texarkana Tuesday winner had to turn right around and play Jonesboro in the championship round that same night.
Once in the title game, things fell apart quickly and decisively. Six base hits, two errors and two walks led to 10 Jonesboro runs in the bottom of the second inning. The seven runs added later were academic.
“You’ve got say that Jonesboro was the best team in the state at this point,” Lyda said. “They are as sound of a baseball team as you’ll find. They can hit the ball and they play small ball very well. They hardly made any mistakes the whole tournament. I still would have loved to have seen what my team would have been able to do with a full night’s rest. I think we would have given them something to think about. What you saw there was what it looks like when a team is running on empty. That Texarkana game was so emotional and so draining, I just wish we had 24 hours of rest.”
Lyda, though, wanted mostly to talk about the simple fact that his team had accomplished more than anyone ever expected just by being there.
“We had so many kids step up for us all the way up and down the lineup this whole postseason,” Lyda said. “We have a group of kids that came together as a team, from about four different schools that had to learn to play together. The came together, played with discipline, showed class in winning and losing. They showed that they can play through adversity and had a never-say-die attitude. That’s what got this team this far.”
Texarkana was heavily favored despite having lost 10-2 to Jacksonville in the annual season-opening tournament at North Little Rock. Texarkana coach Jim Self hearkened back to that matchup before facing the Chevy Boys again Tuesday.
“We’ve won 40 ballgames but Jacksonville beat us, and beat us like a drum,”Texarkana coach Jim Self said. “We thought since we had already run-ruled a team that Jacksonville lost to, we were just going to show up and get another win, and they had other things in mind.”
Despite the outcome of the last meeting, Jonesboro and Texarkana entered the tournament with by far the most impressive records, and considered the two favorites.
The Razorbacks jumped ahead with a single run in the first inning. Leadoff hitter Cantrell Hill was hit by a pitch while facing an 0-2 count, and scored three batters later on a two-out, RBI single by Vic Pappos. In fact, Texarkana’s first three runs were scored by players who were hit by pitches while behind in the count, but nothing had shaken Gwatney’s resolve up to that point, and the hard-to-swallow runs allowed didn’t either.
Jacksonville answered the first run with two runs in the top of the second to take a 2-1 lead. Hayden Simpson drew a leadoff walk and Daniel Thurman singled to left field. A.J. Allen put down a perfect bunt for an RBI, and Tyler Wisdom did the same two batters later to score Thurman.
Texarkana put two on with one out in the bottom of the second, but starting pitcher Jason Regnas got two pop ups to get out of the jam.
Jacksonville added a run to its lead in the top of the third. Caleb Mitchell and Seth Tomboli led off with back-to-back singles. Simpson then hit into a 3-5 fielder’s choice, but Thurman followed with his second hit, his sixth straight in the tournament, to drive in Tomboli and make it 3-1.
The first four Texarkana batters in the bottom of the third scored and gave the Razorbacks a 5-3 lead. The first two were hit by pitches before a single by Pappos scored one run, and a walk to Matt Warner loaded the bases. Ian Wood then singled for two RBIs, and Trey Self laid down a sacrifice bunt to score the final run of the frame.
Jacksonville got one back in the next inning off a single by Terrell Brown and a bases-loaded error on Tomboli’s at bat.
Texarkana then scored twice in the bottom of the frame to stretch its lead to 7-4. A walk and a double by Josh Stringfellow scored the first run, while an error at first base allowed the second of the inning.
Jacksonville made it 7-6 in the top of the fifth by scoring two runs on two Texarana throwing errors on the same play. Tyler Wisdom’s perfect bunt and good speed forced the first error on the throw to first. That allowed Allen to score, then a bad throw to third gave Jeffrey Tillman a pass to home plate.
The Razorbacks then scored once in the sixth to make it 8-6 before the Chevy Boys’ final-inning rally.