Friday, May 18, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Jackrabbits face Saints

Leader sports editor

The Lonoke Jackrabbits flew under the radar into today’s class 4A state baseball championship game against Shiloh Christian, but they believe it’s about time they began to get a little respect around the state. They’ll try to earn that respect at about 12:30 p.m. today at Baum Stadium on the campus of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville when they take the field with the heavily favored Saints.

Senior Lane Moore will take the mound for Lonoke. Like the rest of the Jackrabbit team, the team’s perseverance throughout the season has given him reason to believe it will complete the dream season and win the state title.

“From the beginning of the season we all knew we had the talent and tools to get here,” Moore said. “It was just a matter of putting things together. We learned over the course of the season where to play people, how to get runs and win. That was the main thing, just getting runs across the plate and getting the win. ”Lonoke sputtered at the beginning of the season but almost every player felt like things were turning around after the first conference series.

“When we swept Heber Springs in our first conference games we knew we were strong,” said senior Guy Halbert, who had the game-tying RBI and the game-winning home run against Pulaski Academy in last Saturday’s 12-inning semifinal victory. “We hadn’t swept Heber Springs in forever and when we pulled that off, we knew we had something here.”

Still, after the sweep at Heber Springs, there times when things didn’t look so bright. The Jackrabbits lost 1-0 in eight innings against Newport, bringing back to the forefront the troubles eluded to by Moore, manufacturing runs.

While the first conference series is when the team realized it had state-championship potential it was the last conference series that proved to the team it may reach that potential.

“When we played Clinton for our conference title, we had to beat them twice to win the conference and we did it,” Moore said.

Pitcher and third baseman Hayden Hambrick also points to Clinton as a step towards state glory.

“The Clinton game is when I felt like our bats came alive,” Hambrick said. “In regionals too when we beat them, we were really hitting the ball well.”

The offensive surge is what Lonoke coach Darrick Lowery believes lifted his team’s confidence enough to make it believe it could overcome bad odds.

Lonoke had to rally from six runs down in the final two innings to beat Gentry in the first round of the state tournament last Thursday. Then had to overcome a three run deficit to beat Pulaski Academy in its last game.

“Just knowing that at any one point we could score three or four runs to come back and tie or win a ballgame was huge,” Lowery said. “Getting the bats going like we did towards the end was a tremendous confidence boost for us. This has been one of the best teams I’ve ever had as far as teamwork. Team chemistry has been great all year, so getting the bats going like we did at the end of the year gave us the confidence to keep battling and pull those games out when we got behind.”

Perhaps no one on the team is as confident as junior shortstop Blake Gooden. Gooden so far has an astounding .833 batting average in the state tournament on 10 for 12 hitting. He also pitched the last five innings of the semifinal win against Pulaski Academy, giving up just one hit. He points to the huge first-round comeback as a sign of better things to come.

“After that Gentry game, I just feel like it’s our destiny to win,” Gooden said. “It hasn’t really hit me yet that we’re here. It feels pretty great. It’s pretty exciting to playing for the championship.”

Gooden understands his team is the underdog, but doesn’t believe the Jackrabbits championship opponent is any better than they are.

“We’re tit-for-tat with this team,” Gooden said. “We’ve already made it this far when no one though we would. It’s about time for us to get a little credit.”