Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


Leader sports editor

A season that began with great hope and detoured into tragedy finished in celebration when the Sylvan Hills Bears captured the 6A state baseball championship on May 17 at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

The transfer of three top-notch Abundant Life players infused the Bears, already talented with the likes of Hunter Miller, Mark Turpin, Clint Thornton and Nathan Eller, with enough firepower to go largely unchallenged all the way to the title game with Watson Chapel.

There, it took every bit as much drama as the Bears had endured throughout a season in which they lost a beloved former player to a car crash and a stadium to a tornado.

Trailing 4-1 heading into the final inning, Sylvan Hills rallied, getting a dramatic game-tying three-run home run to deep left by Thornton.

But the Bears, who had adopted a “No excuses” motto, weren’t content merely to tie it. Miller beat out an infield hit and stole second. Staff ace D.J. Baxendale, who struggled in the early innings as Watson Chapel surged to a 4-0 lead, delivered the game-winning single with two outs.

Eller came on in relief to retire the side in order for the save, while Chris Dalton got the win after pitching a 1-2-3 sixth.

It was Sylvan Hills’ seventh state baseball title, moving the Bears into a tie for second overall, three behind Pine Bluff.

Though Sylvan Hills cruised to a 29-6 record, including a 13-1 waltz through the 6A-East, it was anything but an easy season.

Before it even began, the Bears found themselves mourning the death of Taylor Roark, a three-year Bear starter who played on Sylvan Hills’ 2005 5A state title team. Roark had moved on to Henderson State and was set for his freshman year when he was killed on icy 1-30 near Arkadelphia in January.

Less than three months later, still stung by the tragedy, the Bears woke up on the morning of April 4 to find the Sherwood Sports Complex in shreds, their own field destroyed by tornadoes that rolled through the night before. Teammate Jack Chambers’ house suffered severe damage.

Through it all, the Bears kept rolling. After an early conference test against Jonesboro — a narrow 5-4 win — Sylvan Hills blasted most of the rest of the league, losing only once in 6A-East play.

They met remarkably little resistance in the state tournament at Texarkana in early May, opening with a 5-0 win over Searcy in the quarters before facing host Arkansas High two days later for a chance to move on to Baum.

Despite having pitched 48 hours earlier, Baxendale was masterful in mowing down the Razorbacks, tossing a two-hitter and striking out 10 against a potent Arkansas High lineup.

At Baum, it was the expected pitchers’ duel until Watson Chapel erupted for four runs in the fifth. The Bears got one back in the sixth before their dramatic 4-run rally in the sixth.

“We just had to find a way to get it done, and we finally got it done in the end,” said Miller afterward. “We could have given up when we lost a teammate. But we didn’t. We stuck together and came closer as a team when that happened. We’re all like brothers now.”