Friday, April 21, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> ’Rabbits wins league title

Leader sports editor

The Lonoke baseball team earned a share of the 3A/4A District 9 Conference championship with a doubleheader sweep at Mayflower on Thursday. The Jackrabbits pulled it off by scores of 11-10 and 8-7, and that was despite saving its best pitching for next week’s 4A-2 Conference tournament.

Even though Lonoke coach Chris Foor knew a conference championship could be on the line for the blended class league, the seedings for the 4A only district tournament had already been determined, and he focused on the future.

Lonoke and Central Arkansas Christian entered the last day of the regular season each with two losses in league play, one game behind Mayflower. CAC beat Stuttgart to finish as conference co-champs with Lonoke.

When the 4A-2 District tournament begins at Southside-Batesville next week, pulling teams from four different blended conferences, CAC will be the one seed, Heber Springs the two and Lonoke the three.

“We played to sweep this series and win that conference championship,” said Foor. “We did everything we could do within the game to win it. But we also wanted to keep our eye on the big picture. Our district seedings were already in place, so in that regard it didn’t matter what happened Thursday. We wanted all our arms fresh and everyone healthy for when it really counts. Our goal is a state championship and that’s what we’re focused on. As for these two games, the kids played wonderfully and I can’t be more proud.”

Foor only used his top four pitchers sparingly, but strategically.

Kade Stuart, the team’s No. 1 pitcher, got the win in game two, despite giving up a bases-loaded single that tied the game in the top of the seventh inning. That’s because senior Casey Martin stepped to the plate with one out in the bottom of the seventh, and smacked a game-winning, conference-championship clinching, walk-off home run.

“The guy is just an incredible player,” Foor said of the Arkansas Razorback signee. “He does it all.”

At the plate, Martin finished the night with 10 at-bats in the two games combined. He went 5 for 7 with three walks, two home runs, three RBIs and seven runs scored.

Lonoke (16-10, 12-2) used four pitchers in game one and six in game two.

In game one, Lonoke blew a 7-0 lead with one terrible defensive third inning. Several walks and errors, sprinkled with a couple of timely Mayflower base hits tied the game in the bottom of the third.

The Eagles scored two more in the fourth to go up 9-7, but Lonoke got doubles by Caleb Horton and Daulton Smith to get within one run. With two outs, Stuart hit an RBI single to tie the game. Neither team scored in the sixth, but Haven Hunter got a two-run rally in the seventh inning started with a one-out double. He scored on another RBI base hit by Stuart. After a Mayflower error moved Stuart into scoring position, a base hit by Greg Lingo made it 11-9 Lonoke.

Mayflower scored a run and had another in scoring position with no outs when Martin took the mound. The runner was thrown out on the base paths, and Martin got a strikeout and a 6-3 grounder for the save.

Will Roark pitched 1 1/3 innings in the sixth and seventh for the win.

“We had that one period in game one where we just got lax on our heels,” Foor said. “Guys that normally pump strikes in there just couldn’t land. We started missing balls and misjudging balls. We got up big and just lost our focus. You hate to see that, but I was glad that we were able to regroup. Hopefully we learned from that going into postseason; that hey, we have to stay sharp mentally or we could blow this thing.”

While the mental lapse serves as a warning, giving Foor confidence heading into postseason was the performance of young pitchers.

“We threw some guys that haven’t logged a lot of innings, put it that way,” Foor said. “Guys like Will McNeil, a sophomore I think had thrown 1/3 innings in varsity. He gave me 4 1/3 and pitched really well. Noah Mulligan hadn’t seen but maybe one inning in varsity. He gave me some valuable mound time. None of our main four guys did anything but throw their bullpens. Everyone else stepped up for us.

“Horton is a senior, but he struggled at the plate much of the year. He has been massive down the stretch. He just stuck with it and kept working. He got a big double for us in this one. Everybody hit it all up and down the lineup. That, combined with the young guys that pitched well, it gives us confidence moving forward and for the future.”

The district tournament begins Monday, but Lonoke won’t play until it faces Baptist Prep at 4 p.m. Tuesday.