Friday, May 20, 2011

SPORTS>>6A-East showdown decides state champs

Leader sports editor

For the third straight year, Searcy reached the state baseball final.

For the first time in three years, Jacksonville didn’t make a first-round exit from the state tournament.

The 6A-East Conference foes were on a collision course to Conway in Friday’s 6A state championship on the University of Central Arkansas campus. First pitch was 7 p.m. at Bear Stadium.

Top-seeded Searcy (24-7), which swept the regular season doubleheader from Jacksonville on April 26, cruised through its side of the state tournament bracket behind Arkansas signee and possible first-round Major League draft pick Dillon Howard and fellow pitcher Preston Tarkington.

Jacksonville (19-11) entered as the No. 6 seed after bowing out in the second round as a top seed with a first-round bye the past two years. The Red Devils powered to the final behind seven home runs, four in their 12-8, semifinal victory over Marion.

That set up a classic, hitting vs. pitching showdown at UCA on Friday.

“It’s just a very tough league,” Jacksonville coach Larry Burrows said, noting that the 6A’s four semifinalists were from the East.

Howard, slated to start Friday night, and Tarkington combined for 14 state tournament innings with just one earned run allowed.

Jacksonville, meanwhile, showed the most offensive punch of the tournament; the Red Devils’ seven-home runs were a tournament high, as were their 12 runs in the semifinal.

Outfielder D’Vone McClure, a five-tool player and a potential draft pick himself someday, hit two homers and doubled off the wall in the semifinal while Jacob Abrahamson and Patrick Castleberry each hit one home run.

But it was timely, situational hitting that helped Jacksonville hold off Marion.

Logan Perry delivered a two-run double on a two-strike count with two out in the sixth to help break open a two-run game.

“They have a very good offensive ballclub,” Searcy coach Clay McCammon said.

Tarkington got the decision in Searcy’s 9-2, semifinal victory over Mountain Home, with the pitching staff’s lone earned run of the tournament coming on a first-inning Bombers home run.

The right-handed Howard, projected by some analysts to be taken somewhere from 23rd to 29th in the first round of next month’s draft, struck out 14 and allowed four hits in his 5-0 tournament quarterfinal victory over Texarkana.

He retired the first eight he faced and two of the hits he allowed were on the infield.

Howard was not available to pitch in last year’s state championship loss at Baum Stadium because of shoulder trouble.

He played several positions on the infield but couldn’t keep the Lions from falling in their second consecutive title game.

For that reason, Howard was looking forward to a change of venue in this year’s final. The Arkansas Razorbacks had their season-ending SEC series with Ole Miss scheduled for Baum, which forced the Arkansas Activities Association to move the state finals to Conway.

We played there two years ago and lost there two years in a row,” Howard said of Baum. “So any change of scenery would be good.”