Wednesday, July 04, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Lonoke wins 16-year-old state crown

Leader sportswriter

The Lonoke Banking Center 16-under Babe Ruth team’s road to the 16-year-old state championship game wasn’t without drama.

Lonoke came out of the loser’s bracket to edge Pine Bluff 9-8 in eight innings on Monday to force another game in the finals of the double-elimination tournament. The team then came from behind in the final inning of the winner-take-all game to win 6-4 and claim the state championship.

Lonoke, who hosted the tournament, won a close 4-3 game against Camden in the first round of the double elimination tournament, and then lost a hard fought 10-inning battle to the Pine Bluff Angels 11-8 in the second round.

Facing elimination after the tough loss, Lonoke dominated the same Camden team 11-1 to advance to the championship game, but had to beat the Angels twice in order to claim the state championship.

Both games were just as close as the first between the two evenly-matched teams.

“They never think they’re out of it,” said Lonoke coach Roy Don Lewis of his team after he was given the unexpected, yet traditional Gatorade shower. “They always come up with the timely hit, and they think they’re going to win every time they hit the field. It’s a good group of kids we have here.”

Lonoke struggled early at the plate as Angels pitcher Cameron Banks appeared to be unhittable. Banks retired the first 10 batters he faced, and the Angels scored a run in the third inning to take the game’s first lead.

However, the wear and tear of the grueling tournament caught up with Banks in the fourth inning as the next four Lonoke batters reached base without making contact. Three were walked and three-hole hitter Deron Ricks was hit in the back with a fastball.

With one out in the inning, Austin Reed scored Lonoke’s first run from third base on a passed ball at home with the bases loaded. Ricks scored the second run for Lonoke on another passed ball at the plate just a couple of pitches later.

Pine Bluff added its second run of the game its next at bat in the fourth inning to tie the score at two apiece. In the top of the fifth, Lonoke centerfielder Jaylin Hollaway scored on a passed ball at home after walking earlier in the inning to give Lonoke a 3-2 lead.

In the bottom of the fifth, Pine Bluff retook the lead after scoring two more runs, this time on consecutive passed balls at home plate by Lonoke.

Both teams went scoreless in the sixth inning and Lonoke, down 4-3, suddenly found itself three outs away from losing another close one.

Lonoke’s Jacob Gordon came to the plate with one out in the top of the seventh, with the bases empty, and hit a clutch stand-up double in the left-field gap to give Lonoke some hope. With Triston Sullivan at the plate, Gordon advanced to third on a passed ball, and with two strikes, Sullivan hit an RBI-single down the third baseline to drive in Gordon for the tying run. Leadoff hitter Gage Johnson drove in the go-ahead run for Lonoke with a double to deep left-center field. Sullivan scored all the way from first on the play to give Lonoke a 5-4 lead. Johnson scored two batters later when Ricks hit a high fly ball just outside the infield in right-center.

Johnson was running with two outs in the inning, and the second baseman lost sight of the fly ball and it dropped behind him. Ricks was safe on the play and Johnson crossed home plate to set the final margin.

Lonoke got the win despite totaling just four hits in the game. Josh Mathis was stellar on the mound in the winning effort, striking out eight batters while giving up just one walk in the complete game performance. According to Lewis, Mathis’ gumption and competitive spirit was just as impressive as his performance, something he feels the team as a whole possesses.

“Today at one o’clock I got a text from Josh (Mathis),” Lewis said. “He said, ‘coach I’ve been icing my arm, I took some ibuprofen, my arm feels great. I’m good as new.’ He asked me who I was going to start tonight. I told him ‘I didn’t know yet.’ He said, ‘I’m ready. I’m the man. I want it.’ That’s the kind of team this is. They want the ball.”