Tuesday, May 16, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Cabot set for first baseball title game

Leader sports editor

Cabot High School has never played in a baseball state championship game, but that will change on Friday when the Panthers take on Springdale-Har-Ber for the Class 7A championship at 10 a.m. at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

The Panthers broke the school record for wins in a season three games ago, and enter the Friday morning contest with a record of 14-7.

While it’s the first championship appearance for Cabot, it doesn’t come as a surprise to many on the team, including head coach Ronnie Goodwin, who started at Cabot High School the same year as his senior class.

“I’ve told them since they were in ninth grade they had a chance to be in one of these,” said Goodwin. “I knew we had the talent, it was just a matter of if we put it together. So far we’ve done that pretty well.”

One player that has started nearly every game in his and Goodwin’s time at CHS is back catcher Denver Mullins. He’s the team’s lone four-year starter. A Crowder College signee, Mullins has a unique perspective on the differences between this year’s team, and others in recent years that haven’t achieved the same level of success.

“We have a lot of talent, but especially a lotof experience with the talent,” said Mullins. “My freshman year, we had about as much talent, but not the experience or the chemistry these guys have. Chemistry is a really big deal. Most of these guys I’ve played with since I was four or five, so we’ve been playing together a long time. We’ve been aiming at this a really long time and it’s taken a lot of hard work and dedication.”

The Har-Ber Wildcats (22-9) were the three seed from the 7A-West, and had to win three games to get to the championship game. They saved ace right-hander Blake Adams in the first game against Central six seed Fort Smith Southside.

Har-Ber carried a 6-1 lead into the sixth inning, but gave up a six spot and had to rally for a 10-7 victory.

Adams then pitched in the quarterfinals against North Little Rock, and went the distance in a 5-3 win. Again, Har-Ber had to come from behind. NLR got three hits and a walk to go with a Har-Ber error to score all three of its runs in the bottom of the first inning.

From that point, Adams held NLR to just three more hits over the final six innings.

That led to a semifinal matchup with Fayetteville, a team the Wildcats split with in the regular-season. Left-handed pitcher Blake Benson went the distance in that 8-1 victory, throwing five innings of shutout baseball until the Bulldogs finally scored in the sixth.

Adams is just a sophomore and Har-Ber coach Ron Bradley is clear that he thinks his team is the underdog, but doesn’t see any disadvantage to having a sophomore going against a senior on the mound.

“With everything Blake has done for us this year, he’s not really a sophomore anymore,” said Bradley. “He’s more like a junior. He’s come through for us time and again all season long. But I don’t think there’s any question Cabot is the favorite. With their record and what they’ve accomplish this year, I think they’d have been a one seed in either conference. So it’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us.”

Of the 11 Wildcats with plate appearances in the playoffs, only one is hitting below .300. Seven-hole hitter Mac McCroskey leads the team in the state tournament, hitting .500. The Wildcats have piled up 32 base hits in three playoff games, including six doubles and three triples.

Adams is also the team’s leading hitter, batting .384 this season. McCroskey is batting .371 for the season. Cleanup hitter Caleb Kimbel was hitting .190 halfway through the season, but is at .304 now.

“He’s hit about .450 for us since about the midway point,” Bradley said.

Goodwin expects to see the sophomore Adams, but he’s happy with how his team has been swinging the bats lately. Cabot got six hits against Catholic ace Noah Fowler in the quarterfinals. On Saturday, the Panthers piled up 15 base hits in just five innings of their 14-4 win over Bryant.

Leadoff hitter Blake McCutchen went 4 for 4 with two doubles, three RBIs and three runs scored in the semifinal blowout. Clayton Gray went 3 for 4 with three RBIs and Dillon Thomas went 2 for 4. Everyone who stepped to the plate in that game got at least one hit.

“From top to bottom we’ve put a lot on a lot of players,” Goodwin said.

Cabot played most of the season without three starters, but had different people step in as needed. Caleb Harpole played center field while UA signee Evan Hooper recovered from an injury. Last year’s starting second baseman, Bobby Joe Duncan, missed much of the season after an injury in basketball. Eric Larsen, last year’s cleanup hitter, didn’t return until near the very end of the year, and Brodey Schluter filled that gap at first base.

Sophomore Kyler Franks performed so well at second base in Duncan’s absence, Duncan moved to first base when he returned.

Houston King and Clayton Gray are two freshmen that have carved out spots in the starting lineup for themselves.

“That’s why we call it a team game,” Goodwin said. “We just kind-of say next man up. We’re swinging it really well. Larsen was our cleanup last year and he’s in the eight hole. We start a lot of seniors, but Dillon Thomas is a junior and he’s leading us in hitting. If you would have told me at the beginning that Bobby Duncan would be at first base, I would’ve said no way. It’s been a team thing. These guys just don’t flinch.”

Thomas leads Cabot with a phenomenal .426 batting average. Mullins is hitting .371 while McCutchen and King are at .367.

Cabot has experienced several close games this year in the rugged 7A-Central Conference. The conference season started with back-to-back one-run, extra-innings wins over Conway and Little Rock Central. There would be two more extra-innings games and four more settled by two runs or fewer.

The Panthers only lost one, 3-1 to Bryant at home a month after beating them 3-2 on the road.

“I’ve always told them, win or lose, one-run games make you better,” Goodwin said. “Because we competed against such good teams, I know we’re prepared for it. They’ve been a resilient group.”

Goodwin expects Har-Ber coach Ronnie Bradley to hand the ball to Adams, and Goodwin will answer with Logan Gilbertson, a 6-foot-6 right-hander who has signed with UCA.

He was the team’s No. 2 last year behind ASU signee Chase Kyzer, and has embraced the role as the go-to guy for the team this year.

“I didn’t really think of it as a burden,” said Gilbertson. “It was just one of my responsibilities to help out the team. My plan was to be the guy to take over the innings for sure.”

Gilbertson has pitched masterfully all year, but because of so many close games, senior Michael Shepherd has ended up with the most wins in conference play as a relief pitcher.

Senior Brett Brockinton has been the No. 2 starter in league play, and the whole staff will be available if needed on Friday.

There are always a few extra distractions for a championship game, and spring sports teams deal with the added distractions of end-of-the-year tests, graduation and graduation preparation. The head Panther has some sound advice for his team, and believes this squad has the maturity and experience to take heed.

“Just be where your feet are,” Goodwin said. “It’s what we’ve talked about all year. We have to have the mindset that it’s just the next game on the schedule. There are going to be a lot of things out there, distractions of different kinds, so what can we control? We can control what we’re doing in this moment. It’s still 60-feet, 6-inches from mound to plate, and 90-feet bases. We just have to prepare like we have all year, try to stay as even keel as possible and just be where our feet are.”