Tuesday, May 20, 2008

SPORTS>> Wildcats cash in on 5-year plan to pick up 3A title

Leader sportswriter

FAYETTEVILLE — Marmaduke’s rally to start the final inning was enough to put a scare in Har-ding Academy, but the hole the Greyhounds dug for themselves with errors in the previous six innings proved too deep to climb out of.

The Wildcats captured their first-ever 3A state baseball championship on Saturday afternoon at Baum Stadium on the
University of Arkansas campus with an 8-4 win over Marmaduke.

With the Wildcats already holding a 4-2 lead, the four runs they scored in the bottom of the sixth inning appeared to be more than enough. But the ’Hounds were finally able to break through in the seventh on a pair of hits, a misplayed pop up and three walks.

Lincoln was able to turn a pitcher-to-catcher-to-first double play and right fielder James Dillard finally ended it when he hauled in a shallow fly ball as Harding Academy reached the pinnacle of 3A in just the program’s fifth year.

“We take advantage of what the other team gives us,” Harding Academy coach Dennis Rine said. “And keep putting the ball in play. That’s what we’ve tried to do all year. They’ve hit the ball well all year. They’re athletic and can run, and so here in the biggerpark, when it hits the wall, we’re going to turn them loose and let them run.”

Solid defensive play across the diamond was no surprise to Rine, and neither was the fact that two-thirds of the HA hits came out of the bottom of the line-up, including a trio of triples that led to two runs and drove in another.

“We’ve been good all the way through the lineup all year,” Rine said. “The top of the order has carried us a lot, but the bottom of the order was able to come in and hit the ball as well.”

The Wildcats ended the game with just one more hit than Marmaduke, but a pair of triples by Ty Finley, and one more for Thompson gave Harding Academy far better opportunities. Four errors by Marmaduke shortstop Ray Taylor — six overall by the Greyhounds — also aided the ’Cats cause. Only three Harding Academy runs were earned.

J.T. Fisher, who earned MVP honors, singled and scored on a passed ball to stake Harding Academy to a 1-0 lead in the first, and Taylor’s dropped pop up with two outs in the second allowed T.J. Thompson to come around from second and extend the Wildcats’ lead to 2-0.

Finley’s triple and Lance Carr’s double in the third made it 3-0.

Another error led to Harding Academy’s fourth run in the fifth inning. After Matt Calhoun reached on a miscue by Taylor, Finley tripled him home and the lead grew to 4-0.

Two more errors in the sixth helped the Wildcats put up four more runs and extend the lead to 8-2.

“Defensively, they were pretty good,” Marmaduke coach Larry Willis said. “And that’s been our downfall all year. When we lost, we had a tendency to cough it up some. And I knew we couldn’t do that today. But we did. And I thought that was the difference in the game. Some of the kids were scared. It was the state tournament and that was the first time for us in baseball. And that made a difference, I think.”

Willis said his team’s unfamiliarity with Baum’s much bigger, and wind-sensitive playing field accounted for some of his team’s defensive problems.

“The Horatio coach warned me, if the ball gets above the roof, the wind will play tricks with it and when it comes down, it will come down in a different area,” said Willis, whose Greyhounds finished 16-10. “I thought that played a little bit of a factor today, but both teams had to play on the same field.”

Fisher went 2 for 4 with a run and an RBI for Harding Academy.

“We come together as a team,” Fisher said. “That was a team effort out there. Everybody had hits; everybody produced for that one. (Coach Rine) just told us that the most relaxed team would win. He said that we were both really great teams out here, but we would come out on top if we were relaxed.