Tuesday, May 18, 2010

SPORTS>>Searcy flies to final with sacrifice

Leader sports editor

BENTON — The Searcy Lions used textbook baseball to beat Benton and advance to the final chapter of the 6A season Monday night.

Two sixth-inning bunts and Brent Bunker’s sacrifice fly lifted the Lions to a 4-3 victory over the defending state champion Panthers in the semifinals at Benton High School. The game was a rematch of last year’s state championship and Searcy’s victory gives it a berth in Friday’s final against Lake Hamilton at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

First pitch is at 4:30 p.m.

“One, we don’t want to be satisfied with just getting back,” Searcy coach Clay McCammon said, reflecting on injuries and minor disciplinary problems that could have derailed the Lions this season. “We’ve had some adversity this year, some different things, they’ve had the opportunity to throw in the towel and they fought hard and this is their No. 1 goal.”

With the game tied 3-3 entering the sixth, Searcy’s Mike Brown led off with an infield single and Jared Haggard followed with a bunt hit. Chris Bond advanced both runners with a sacrifice bunt and then Bunker, the No. 9 hitter, scored Brown from third with a sacrifice fly to left.

“That’s baseball. That’s how we’re coached,” Bunker said of the late-game execution. “We practice it every day and you’ve got to get it down when it’s time.”

Lions reliever Preston Tarkington struck out the side in the seventh to send Searcy to its second consecutive state final. Benton beat Searcy 8-5 last year.

“I love it, love it,” Bunker said of the victory. “It’s big. It will carry us into Baum.”

The skillfully played semifinal was in contrast to the error- and walk-filled quarterfinal marathon in which Searcy beat Watson Chapel on Saturday. That game began after 9 p.m. and ended after midnight Sunday with a 9-6 Searcy victory.

“We finally executed there late in the game at the bottom of the order and that’s what you’ve got to have to win in baseball,” McCammon said of Monday’s semifinal.

Searcy first baseman Zach Langley opened the scoring in the first inning Monday when he walloped a Cole Durham pitch over the right-field fence for a home run and the 1-0 lead.

Benton’s C.J. Engle singled to right and made it to third on a pair of wild pitches by Searcy starter Dillon Howard, and Stuart Levy singled him in to tie it. Lee Richardson doubled to lead off the Searcy fourth and scored when designated hitter Josh Creel hit into a fielder’s choice to make it 2-1.

Langley singled with two out in the Searcy fifth and Tarkington reached on Engle’s error at third. Howard then doubled to right-center field off Durham to score both runners and give Searcy the 3-2 lead.

“The most costly thing to me was the double that Howard hit, that kind of broke our back,” Benton coach Mark Balisterri said.

“We were contemplating a pitching change but he reached out for an outside pitch. Cole threw the pitch exactly where we asked him to.”

In the top of the sixth Bond, who relieved Howard to start the fifth, walked Richardson and hit Ashton Roberts. Engle hit into a one-out fielder’s choice and Roberts was safe at second on an error by Jared Haggard, but Haggard threw out Richardson at the plate for the second out.

“It was my fault,” said Balisterri who was coaching third. “He did what he was supposed to do; he was being aggressive.”
Benton catcher Stuart Levy followed with a single to left to score Roberts from second and tie it 3-3.

That set up Searcy’s small ball rally and Bunker’s go-ahead sacrifice fly in the bottom of the sixth.

“That’s the way you play the game of baseball,” Balisterri said. “Both teams did it the whole game. They did it at the end.”

Bond pitched two innings in getting the victory and Tarkington got the save. Benton reliever Billy Tricario took the loss.

It was a tough loss for Benton, the No. 4 seed from the 6A-South, which got into a postseason groove and was bidding for a return to the state final in front of an enthusiastic home crowd.

“I’m just blessed to be able to be here coaching this group of kids and at Benton High School,” Balisterri said. “Two or three weeks ago we were struggling a little bit and I knew this team had it in them. I just didn’t know if it would ever come out.”

It was a measure of revenge for Searcy, the No. 3 seed from the 6A-East.

“To be honest with you, nobody wanted to play them on this field in this game,” McCammon said. “But our kids were up to the challenge and we were just fortunate to score one more than they did.”