Tuesday, May 16, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Panthers leave no doubt in semifinal

Leader sports editor

BENTONVILLE – After a season series split that consisted of a one-run game and an extra-innings game, there was nothing close about the semifinal rubber match. When the Cabot Panthers met the Bryant Hornets for the third time Saturday in the Class 7A baseball playoffs, it was all Cabot.

The Panthers pummeled the Hornets 14-4 in five innings to earn their ticket to the school’s first-ever appearance in a baseball state championship.

The 7A-Central champion Panthers (24-7, 13-1) avenged that one conference loss with an offensive outburst of 16 base hits in just five innings.

“When you look at the hits column, at 16-10 it felt a lot closer than the score indicated,” said Cabot coach Ronnie Goodwin. “They have such a good program. There wasn’t an easy out for us in that whole game because their approach is so good. I can’t tell you how much respect I have for them. But our kids, though, they could taste it today and they played well.”

Bryant actually scored first in the top of the first inning. After taking the lead, the Hornets still had the bases loaded with one out, but pitcher Brett Brockinton struck out the next two batters to keep the deficit to one run.

Cabot then went right to work offensively. Blake McCutchen and Clayton Gray hit back-to-back singles to start things off. They were still standing on base with two outs, but freshman Houston King singled to drive in both base runners. King then scored when Bobby Joe Duncan’s grounder to shortstop was mishandled. Giving Cabot a 3-1 lead.

Brockinton held Bryant scoreless in the second, and the Panthers quickly added three more runs. With one out, Kyle Franks started a four-straight hit rally with a single to right field. McCutchen doubled, Gray singled and Mullins doubled to make it 6-1.

Bryant scored two runs on a triple by Matthew Sandage to make it 6-3, but the Panther bats were relentless, and the Hornet defense began to crack.

Duncan reached on another error to start the third, and Evan Hooper was hit. Duncan scored on a sacrifice bunt by Frankes, and McCutchen singled to drive in Hooper for a 9-3 Cabot lead.

A Panther error and two singles made it 9-4 in the top of the fourth, but Cabot added four in the bottom half. Dillon Thomas hit a leadoff single and King walked.

Duncan’s sacrifice bunt turned into a single when he pushed it past the mound on the third-base side. Hooper then singled to score Thomas and King. Franks walked to load the bases again, McCutchen then singled to score Duncan and Hooper for a 13-4 lead.

Michael Shepherd held Bryant scoreless in the top of the fifth, and Cabot put an end to the game in the bottom half by going up by 10 runs.

Thomas hit a leadoff double and was replaced by Ty Cyr. Duncan and Hooper drew one-out walks, and Larsen got the game-ending RBI base hit with a line drive to left field.

“This is my first group I had four years ago,” Goodwin said. “I told them Cabot is going to be in one of these and win one of these championships one of these days. The only question is, are you going to be here to see and am I going to be. Now we’re a step closer with one more game.”

McCutchen went 4 for 4 with a double, three runs scored and three RBIs. Gray went 3 for 4 with two runs and three RBIs. Everyone with an at-bat got at least one hit, and Goodwin feels good about the way his whole lineup is swinging it.

“Top to bottom, McCutchen is the cataclyst at the top there” Goodwin said. “The two freshmen, Gray and King, they’ve been fearless as freshmen. When you watch them play, if you don’t know who they are you don’t think they’re freshmen. Denver has been a staple as a four-year starter. Dillon is leading us in hitting.

“There’s just so much depth to our lineup. Getting Eric Larsen back who hasn’t been here all year, I mean, there’s an eight-hole guy who was our cleanup last year and led our team in RBIs.

“You got guys like Duncan and Hooper in front of him with some speed. So, you know, if we can get traffic we’ve got guys that score guys from first and we’ve got more speed that we’ve ever had.”

Senior pitcher Logan Gilbertson pitched in the quarterfinals and didn’t play on Saturday, but despite not playing, called the win the highlight of the season.

“Bryant beat us earlier, so it was nice to come out and put it on them like that,” said Gilbertson.