Tuesday, May 17, 2011

SPORTS >> Howard, Searcy aim for trophy

Special to The Leader

MARION — After Searcy enjoyed a first-round bye and plowed through two opponents in the Class 6A state tournament, the question Arkansas baseball coaches were asking was, “Who can stop the Lions?”

The Lions reached the state championship game by defeating Texarkana 5-0 in the quarterfinals on Saturday and then overpowering Mountain Home 9-2 in the semifinals on Monday night.

With hard-throwing ace Dillon Howard taking the ball in Friday night’s final on five-days rest, Searcy looks formidable.

Searcy lost to Lake Hamilton in last year’s championship in Fayetteville but played that game without Howard, who was relegated to a defensive utility role because of shoulder trouble.

No such trouble is evident this season.

In 14 innings of the Lions’ two state-tournament games, Howard and No. 2 starter Preston Tarkington allowed only one earned run. The Lions will face Jacksonville on Friday at 7 p.m. on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas for the 6A championship.

Howard is so prominent on the Major League Baseball draft radar that mock drafts have him going anywhere from the 23rd to the 29th pick of the first round.

He threw a four-hit, 14-strikeout gem in the quarterfinals and, entering his final high school game, he looks to be imposing for most teams.

However, Jacksonville showed the most offensive punch of any team in the state tournament as the Red Devils hit a tournament-best seven home runs in only three games.

Howard, a University of Arkansas signee, is trying to keep thoughts of the June 6 MLB draft in the back of his mind, at least until the final is over.

“I try not to think about it, but it’s kind of hard,” said Howard, listed at 6-4, 205 pounds. “I’m trying to focus solely on the state tournament.”

Searcy (24-7) earned the right to play in the title game by withstanding an early threat from Mountain Home on Monday. Chris Armistead, the Bombers’ starting pitcher, slammed Tarkington’s first pitch of the game over the left-field fence for 1-0 Mountain Home lead.

“I think that rung our bell a little bit,” Searcy coach Clay McCammon said. “I think we were a little tight to start the game, and I think we woke up after that.”

Searcy answered with a four-run second inning highlighted by Mike Brown’s RBI double, a run-scoring single by Jared Haggard and two more runs that came when Mountain Home center fielder Trey Killian dropped a routine fly ball that would have ended the inning.

In the third, Tarkington, who went 3-for-4 at the plate, singled and scored on a triple to right by Reed Haggard.

“I’ve got to give it up to my coaches for helping my approach at the plate,” Tarkington said.

The Searcy offense finished off the Bombers by adding two more runs in the fifth on a sacrifice fly by ninth-grader Zach Anderson and a run-scoring single by Reed Haggard.

On Saturday, it was all Howard as he lit up the radar gun, with a fastball topping out at 96 mph and averaging 93-94 mph.

Howard retired the first eight hitters he faced and the first two hits Texarkana got were choppers that never left the infield.

The Lions reached Texarkana starting pitcher Brett Rinehart, also an Arkansas signee, for seven hits and five earned runs.

“Texarkana had some big bats, too,” McCammon said. “It was no small feat for Dillon to do what he did.”

Howard was a force at the plate, too, reaching base three times and driving in a run with a sacrifice fly in the third inning.

He also made an athletic defensive play in the middle infield to support Tarkington.

“We’ve had two strong games in the tournament, but we can’t let up,” McCammon said.