Leader Blues

Friday, August 01, 2008

SPORTS>> Bruins poised for run to title

Leader sports editor

As impressive as Sylvan Hills was in running through the competition at the Zone 3 Senior tournament last weekend, things are about to get a whole lot tougher.

Not that Zone 3 isn’t a pretty stout league itself. Nothing drives that home more than the fact that a very solid North Little Rock Colts team qualified for this weekend’s state tournament only by virtue of being its host.

The Bruins began American Legion state tournament play yesterday morning at Burns Park by beating Little Rock Blue 9-1.

Sylvan Hills is trying to follow in the footsteps of its high school counterparts, who won the 6A state title in May.

The Bruins feature as many as six batters in their lineup from that Bears team that rallied from three runs down in the final inning at Baum Stadium to beat Watson Chapel for the championship. Add to that a mix of former players, and you have a team as solid as any other at Burns this weekend.

But there are some formidable foes among the entrants, including defending state and regional champ Bryant, 3-time defending high school champ Fayetteville, and perennial powers Jonesboro, Searcy and Fort Smith. Russellville, Little Rock Blue and North Little Rock round out the bracket.

Sylvan Hills head coach Mike Bromley, though, seemed confident after the Bruins dispatched Russellville with relative ease on Monday evening to win the zone championship and finish off an unbeaten run through the tournament.

“We’ve said all along that if we get everybody here we’d be pretty tough,” Bromley said. “And they’re clicking on all cylinders right now. If we go and play like we’re playing right now, we’ve got a good shot.”

If the Bruins can continue their offensive trend from the zone tournament — and make no mistake that the pitching is about to get a lot better — it’s easy to understand Bromley’s high hopes. Sylvan Hills averaged nearly 12 runs a game over five games and hit .313.

That includes a 5-hit game in the opener against Sylvan Hills 2, a game in which the Bruins received precious few pitches to hit after being plunked six times and walked eight others. Take away that game and the Bruins belted nearly .350 in the tournament.

Six batters in the lineup hit better than .300, while Ross Bogard went 10 of 22 with six RBI and seven runs scored. Matt Rugger batted .400 with four RBI and six runs. Rugger reached base all six times on Monday.

The biggest run producer by far was Mark Turpin who drove in 10 runs and scored nine more while batting .304. Turpin had a home run and four doubles. Leadoff man Justin Treece beltedtwo home runs and drove in five while hitting .368. D.J.

Baxendale rallied from a slow start at the plate to hit .333 and score eight times, and Thornton batted .316 with six RBI.

If there was a disturbing trend last weekend it was Sylvan Hills’ failure to capitalize as much as it might have, stranding 57 runners over five games. But given the sheer number of Bruins on the base paths, that may not be as troubling as it sounds.

Defensively, Sylvan Hills was solid, especially given the exhaustion and fatigue of playing five games over five scorching days.

The Bruins committed only nine miscues and allowed only four unearned runs.

But it is pitching and pitching depth that will prove critical at state. Sylvan Hills has two bonafide aces in Baxendale and Blaine Sims. Baxendale turned in the performance of the tournament last weekend when he thoroughly shut down a North Little Rock lineup that features almost no weaknesses. Baxendale fanned 17 in a 2-hit shutout of the Colts.

Earlier this season, Sims struck out 18 in a game, and followed that performance by striking out 12. Sims fanned eight over six innings in a second-round game against Russellville last Friday.

Bogard shut down a good Cabot Community Bank lineup on Sunday, allowing no earned runs and only four hits in seven innings. Bromley can also call on Brandon Chastain — the opening-round winner in a 9-strikeout performance against Sylvan Hills No. 2 — Chris Eastham, who won the title game against Russellville, as well as Nathan Eller in relief.

The Bruins’ staff allowed only seven earned runs over 39 innings and a .178 batting average.
Fayetteville drew the top seed for the tourney and got a bye into the second round. It and Bryant, which won state last year as well as the regional title, have to be considered among the favorites.

The Blacksox (42-8) have most of last year’s team back, though they lost staff ace Aaron Davidson. Still, they feature a couple of aces in Trent Daniel and Tyler Sawyer and a power hitter in David Guarno. Guarno hit four home runs during the zone tournament last weekend.

Fayetteville is stronger this year by virtue of Springdale’s decision not to field an American Legion team. As a result, the Fayetteville Legion team this season draws from Har-ber High School and also features several current Arkansas-Fort Smith players.

Their best all-around player is Fayetteville High’s Taylor Shaddy, who not only shut out Fort Smith over five innings in the tournament, but belted two home runs and drove in five.

Other key offensive components are Colton West, who leads the team in average, and Christian Allen. Their power comes from Cameron Walker, Garrett Meyer, Aaron Bowen, Andrew Thames and Shaddy.

Jonesboro also brings frightening credentials into the tourney, having outscored its opponents 68-8 in steamrolling through the Zone 2 Tournament last week. Jonesboro (33-9) got a 1-hitter from Cade Lynch (7-0) in the title game against Searcy. The
Ricemen also feature a potent lineup, which includes Jacob Lee, Billy Ninemier, Brant Arender, Dustin Jones and Kevin Burgi, among others.