Friday, May 17, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> NLR girls vie for title today

Leader sportswriter

North Little Rock is one game away from claiming the class 7A state softball championship, and in today’s 3 p.m. title game at Bogle Park on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville, it’ll be against a red hot Rogers team that lost soundly to the Charging Lady Wildcats earlier in the season.

In the two respective teams’ lone meeting this season, which took place in early March at Lady Cat Field, North Little Rock (26-7) pummeled the Lady Mounties 14-1 in five innings of play. But as Charging Lady Wildcats coach Anthony Cantrell has said to his team all week, expect a much bigger challenge this time around.

“They’re playing really well right now,” Cantrell said of Rogers. “We played them earlier in the year and I think they’re a totally different team right now. And that’s one of the things we’ve been trying to get across to our girls, is the team we’re going to play on Saturday is not the same team we played earlier in the year.

“I think they had gotten some girls that were just out of basketball, and I think coach Harper (Rogers) was trying to play with some different lineups. It was just one of those days where we swung it real good that day and played well.”

The Lady Mounties (19-10) finished the season second in the 7A/6A West Conference with a 10-4 record. They finished behind Fayetteville, who North Little Rock squeaked by in the semifinals last Saturday with a 3-1 win.

Freshman standout pitcher Kayleigh Wynne got the win against Fayetteville, and will try and get the same result against Rogers today. Wynne has dominated the competition this year as she’s put together an impressive 25-5 record.

“Kayleigh will be pitching on Saturday,” Cantrell said. “She’s real strong and the more she throws the better she gets.”

Even though the majority of the Lady Wildcat starters are freshmen and sophomores, the upperclassmen on the team have been on this stage before. In 2011, North Little Rock played Bryant in the title game, but was on the losing end of that game.

Seniors Emily Bullock, Kelsie Claussen, Erin Columbus and Lauren Steadman, along with juniors Katy Kinnison and Kaylie Roberts, have led by example throughout the year, and know what it’s going to take to be on the winning side of things this time around, according to Cantrell.

“That’s one of the things we’ve been talking about all week,” Cantrell said. “I’ve got six upperclassmen that were on the team two years ago when we got beat 11-1 by Bryant in the finals. They’ve got some experience and they know you can’t take anything for granted.

“It’s something you’re not guaranteed to get back to every year. We’ve been taking it one swing at a time, one game at a time, and hopefully on Saturday we’re going to continue to do the same thing.”

Wynne also leads the team in hitting as she’s batting over .400 for the year. She’s totaled a team-high 16 doubles and has two home runs. Kinnison and Hannah Lovercheck have also had stellar seasons at the plate as both are hitting around the .360 mark.

Kinnison and Lovercheck each have totaled 15 doubles on the season. Kinnison also has 4 home runs. Lovercheck has one homer on the year, and has scored a team-high 28 runs.

Defensively, North Little Rock has been solid all year long. Sophomore shortstop Ashton Bobbitt and freshman second baseman Sydney Parr have made it difficult for opposing teams to reach base throughout the year, and sophomore catcher McKenzie Escovedo’s play behind the plate has stood out in particular to Cantrell.

“Those two in the middle have really done well,” Cantrell said of Bobbitt and Parr. “McKenzie Escovedo, she’s really, really underrated behind the plate, because she’s catching kids that are throwing 60 miles-per-hour, having the ball move all over the place. She’s done a wonderful job behind the plate defensively.

“She’s one of those kids that she’s not a real vocal kid, but she may be the most fierce competitor we have. I mean, she wants to do everything perfectly. She is really underrated I think as far as a defensive catcher goes.”

Sophomores Lydia Belew, Rachel Gregory, Bailey Harris and Morgan Seaton, along with freshman Lainey Necessary, have also played a big part in the Lady Wildcats’ success this season, and will need to continue to contribute to the team’s effort today if North Little Rock expects to hoist the championship trophy at the conclusion of today’s title game.

Rogers, who beat Fort Smith Southside 6-3 in last Saturday’s semifinals, has played its best ball over the past couple of weeks, according to Lady Mounties coach Mike Harper. But if Harper’s team expects a different outcome from its first meeting with NLR this year, he knows his girls will have to play their best game to date.

“They played really well that day and we didn’t,” Harper said of his team’s regular season loss to NLR. “I hope we play a better game on Saturday that’s for sure. We’ve had a good season, we’ve finished strong and we have some confidence, but we know we have to play to the best of our ability to beat a team like North Little Rock.”

Harper didn’t want to say for sure who his starting pitcher will be in today’s game, but mentioned that sophomore right-hander Haylee Zimmerman will likely get the nod to start, but added that he has a few options he’s considering.

“We just want to play our game,” Harper said. “We’re not as talented as North Little Rock and we’re going to need to play to the best of our abilities. We’ve developed more team chemistry throughout the year and I guess you can say that’s a key to how we’ve gotten better.

“We’ve had a variety of people that have kind of stepped up throughout the year. They get along real well and they come to work, and they don’t ever complain about what we’re doing. They’ve had a very successful year.”

Cantrell has the same approach as far as how his team has prepared for today’s big game.

“We just want to keep doing what we’ve been doing and that’s play as a team,” Cantrell said. “We’ve had some pretty good success this year and that’s because we’ve been playing selfless. All my girls play for each other. Yeah, we have some kids that are pretty good individually.

“But those kids have also bought into the fact that, you know, they may have a day where they go 3 for 3 and do great, but if we don’t win it doesn’t matter. They’ve really bought into the team first mindset.”