SPORTS >> Bears battle big dogs to a split
Leader sports editor
The Sylvan Hills Bears are more than just a state power these days.
The defending 6A champs, who have dropped down to 5A this season and have dominated even more thoroughly in their new classification, have earned a No. 11 national ranking from Collegiate Baseball Magazine and are No. 21 in the USA Today Super 25 poll after running up a 25-1 record.
Sylvan Hills headed to northwest Arkansas this past weekend to tune up for what should prove to be a rugged 5A state tournament next month by taking on a couple of 7A powers in Fayetteville and Springdale. Fayetteville handed the Bears their second loss of the season, avenging an earlier setback to Sylvan Hills with a 5-4 win on Friday night.
But the Bears proved resilient and pounced on Springdale early, then held on for a 7-6 victory to improve to 26-2.
“We just didn’t hit the ball against Fayetteville,” said Sylvan Hills head coach Denny Tipton. “We battled back from a 5-1 deficit and we had our opportunities but we just couldn’t get anything going at all. It wasn’t a very good night all the way around.”
The Bears managed only three hits against one of Fayetteville’s top starters in Scott McFall, while the Bulldogs jumped on Nathan Eller for all five of their runs over the first three innings. Franco Broyles’ two-run homer in the first staked Fayetteville to a 2-0 lead but the Bears cut that in half with a two-out RBI double by Tyler Van Schoyck in the third.
Three hits and two Sylvan Hills errors allowed the Bulldogs to push the lead to 5-1 in the bottom half of the third. Justin Treece replaced Eller and shut down Fayetteville the rest of the way, allowing the Bears to get right back in it with a three-run fourth on just one base hit. D.J. Baxendale led off the inning with a single. Jordan Spears was hit with a pitch and walks to Blake Baxendale and Ryan Dillon forced in a run. Spears came across on a ground out and Blake Baxendale scored on the front end of a double steal to make it 5-4.
But the Bears had only three more base runners. They got the tying run into scoring position in the sixth, but Casey Cerrato flied out to end the threat. Van Schoyck, Eller and D.J. Baxendale were the only Bears to record hits in the game.
Sylvan Hills bounced back on Saturday by jumping out to a 7-0 lead after four innings, but had to call on ace D.J. Baxendale in the seventh to save a 7-6 win. The Bears led 2-0 after an inning. Treece was hit to start the game and Van Schoyck singled.
After Eller bunted them over, Blake Baxendale delivered a two-run single.
Starter Jordan Spears pitched around a walk and an error in the first and an error and a single in the second. In the fourth, the Bears broke the game wide open with five runs on a walk and five hits — singles by Blake Baxendale, Cerrato, Treece, Eller and D.J. Baxendale.
But Springdale got back in it with three in the fourth and a home run in the fifth to cut it to 7-4. Two walks, a hit and another error got Springdale to within a single tally in the sixth, but a strikeout and a groundout preserved the lead.
D.J. Baxendale struck out the side in the seventh, though Springdale put the tying run on with two outs on an error.
“We did not play as solid as we have defensively,” Tipton said. “We’re hoping to get on a roll this week.”
Collegiate Baseball Magazine ran a two-page story on the Bears’ 2008 season of triumph and tragedy in its most recent issue, focusing on the loss of the stadium to a tornado to the death of former player Taylor Roark to the dramatic 5-4 comeback win over Watson Chapel in the 6A state championship.
The Bears, who last week clinched their ninth conference title over the past 10 seasons, have received little competition among their 5A-Southeast foes, though Tipton is quick to point out that White Hall may be as good as anyone out there. The Bears beat White Hall in a doubleheader early in the season.
Sylvan Hills has gone out of conference to tune up for the state tournament, including playing in prestigious tourneys in Shreveport — where it beat Fayetteville — and in Memphis, where it suffered its only other loss.
“We’ve needed to see some good quality arms thrown at us,” Tipton said. “Fayetteville threw one of their conference guys at us. We know in the state tournament we’re going to see some good arms.”
Tipton said that, despite all the acclaim his Bears have received this year and the gaudy record they have posted, it will be a dogfight in the state tournament.
“Greenwood is 21-3, Greene County Tech is undefeated in conference,” he pointed out. “Then you’ve got Lakeside, Pulaski Academy, Greenbrier. We’ll probably draw Nettleton in the first round and if we win that, we’ll get the Lakeside-Greenbrier winner. It’s not going to be easy.”