Tuesday, March 29, 2011

SPORTS >> Rain doesn’t dampen Cabot championship

Leader sportswriter

Tournament victories are great confidence boosters for young teams — even rain-shortened tournament victories.

The Cabot Panthers won the Harrison Invitational tournament last weekend with a first-round victory over Fort Smith Southside and an 18-1 championship victory over the host Goblins.

Rain on Saturday forced cancellations, and many teams made the decision to pack up and go home early. Cabot and Harrison were the two first-round winners still on site, and were therefore placed opposite to each other in the final.

Sophomore pitcher Ryan Logan got his first career victory in the championship game, giving up a run in the bottom of the first inning before shutting down Harrison during the four remaining innings as the game was shortened by the run rule.

“The thing is, anything can happen when you throw in young pitchers,” Cabot coach Jay Fitch said. “When we hit the ball well, the problem is, sometimes we don’t get into the flow like we need to. But in this one, we did.

“That takes pressure off a young pitcher trying to win his first game, so that’s always nice.”

Catcher T.C. Carter provided the spark offensively with home runs in the first and second innings. Carter went 3 for 3 with a walk and hit his first homer over the fence as part of a four-run first, and he hit a three-run home run in his next at-bat in the top of the second.

Freshman first baseman Zach Patterson went 3 for 4 with a double and two singles.

Patterson is only the third freshman to start in Fitch’s 14 years. The other two were Major League prospect Drew Burks, in his last season at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College and has signed with Arkansas State, and University of Arkansas outfielder Sam Bates, who was drafted by the Florida Marlins last year but did not sign.

“We lost our first three; played some really tough competition,” Fitch said of the season’s start. “We have a lot of young players, so to win a couple of tournament games like this is big for us. Hopefully we can build on that confidence as we get into conference.”

The Panthers picked up their 5-2, first-round victory over the Grizzlies thanks to a four-run fourth. Fort Smith Northside struck first when with two runs in the top of the second as starter Cole Nicholson gave up a single and was touched for a pair of squeeze bunts.

But Nicholson went the distance for Cabot and gave up just one more hit while striking out 11. Nicholson, a right-handed senior, has a fastball in the 87-88 mph range and has a few offers from junior colleges.

“He’s just an anchor for us,” Fitch said. “We feel like we can win any game with him on the mound. All we have to do is hit three or four. He’s a shutdown pitcher. He hits his spots, which is good at any level.

“I’m trying to soak him up for one more year — he’s a fun one to watch.”

Cabot pulled to within one run in the bottom of the third when Bryson Morris led off with a double.

Junior third baseman Justin Goff followed with a double to score Morris.

Tyler Cole led off the fourth with a walk and advanced on a single by Cole Thomas. Morris then delivered an RBI single that tied the score.

Carter drove in Thomas and Morris with a single to give the Panthers a 4-2 lead.

Thomas added an insurance run in the seventh when he walked with two outs and stole second before Morris sent him in with a double.

Morris went 3 for 4 with 2 RBI.

The Panthers are hoping to return to the 7A state tournament this season after missing out last year after a bizarre 7A-Central Conference race that featured a six-way tie with two games remaining.

Cabot opened league play before spring break with a split against Russellville. The Panthers resume 7A-Central play Thursday when they host defending 7A state champion Bryant.

“The 7A-Central is the toughest conference in the state, and probably in the history of Arkansas,” Fitch said. “Every team is great, and has a lot of tradition. You don’t get any nights off here.”

Varsity doubleheaders are a new wrinkle this season for 7A teams.

Lower classifications have used doubleheaders and rotated sites from one year to the next, but the 7A-Central and 7A-West played conference opponents home and away until travel demands forced a change.

“It’s kind of a tricky deal, because if you win the first one, you don’t want to be satisfied,” Fitch said.

“But if you lose the first one, you don’t want to get down either, so either way, it’s tough to play those varsity doubleheaders.”