Tuesday, May 12, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Lady Rabs advancing to final of East region

Leader sportswriter

The Lonoke High School softball team earned its first state tournament berth in more than a decade Friday with a 3-0 victory over the host school in the first round of the Class 4A East Regional Tournament at Pocahontas, and on Saturday, the Lady Jackrabbits beat fellow 4A-2 Conference member Heber Springs, 4-2, to earn a spot in the regional championship game.

With Friday’s win, the Lady Jackrabbits (14-5) punched their ticket to the state tournament for the first time since 2004, and Saturday’s win over the 4A-2 Conference and District champion Lady Panthers put an exclamation point on Lonoke’s monumental weekend.

“They’ve had a great weekend,” said Lonoke assistant coach Heath Swiney. “The only thing that could top it off would be to win the thing, but other than that, you couldn’t ask for a whole lot more out of them.”

Lonoke lost to Heber Springs, 7-5, earlier in the season, but obviously got the best of the Lady Panthers in Saturday’s rematch. The Lady Rabbits scored a run in the first and fifth innings to lead 2-0, but Heber Springs scored two in sixth to tie the game at 2-2.

The Lady Rabbits, though, added two more runs to their side of the board in the top of the seventh, and winning pitcher Charley Jo Chesney retired the side in the bottom half of the final inning to give Lonoke the mild upset victory.

Lonoke scored its two go-ahead runs in the seventh on a two-out triple to left field off the bat of senior Jasalyn Truelove. Madison McFadden and Gracie Cole scored on the play, which set the final score at 4-2.

Both teams had five hits Saturday, but Lonoke had the more timely hits, and Heber Springs had one error while Lonoke had zero errors. In the two games played in the tournament, Lonoke has committed just one error.

Solid defense, timely hits and a few breaks are what Swiney said have been the biggest factors in Lonoke’s success throughout the regional tournament.

“Defensively, we’ve made one error in 14 innings of softball,” Swiney said. “In high school softball, that doesn’t happen a whole lot. We’ve made every routine play but that one. As far as the hitting, we are hitting the ball a little bit better, but not only are we hitting it a little bit better, but it’s timely.

“We’re getting hits with runners in scoring position, and you don’t necessarily have to be a great hitting team, you’ve just got to be a timely hitting team, and we’ve done a great job of being timely. Yeah, we’re putting the bat on the ball, but we’re especially timely with our hits.

“We’ve caught some breaks, too. Against Heber, they walked our seven- and eight-hole hitters and we bunted with our nine-hole hitter, so we’re back at the top of our lineup. But that’s the postseason. It’s part of it. You’ve got to have some breaks.”

Before beating Heber Springs, Lonoke had to get by tournament host Pocahontas in order to earn its first state tournament berth in 11 years. The Lady Rabbits scored a run in each of the first, third and seventh innings Friday, and Chesney threw another shutout gem to punch Lonoke’s ticket to the big dance.

Lonoke outhit Pocahontas, 6-3, the highlight of which was a solo home run by Truelove in the top of the first, which gave the Lady Rabbits the only run they’d need.

Truelove led Lonoke at the plate against Pocahontas, going 3 for 3 – a double shy of the cycle. Truelove also led Lonoke at the plate against Heber Springs, going 2 for 3 with two RBIs and a run scored.

Chesney earned both wins in the circle. She threw all seven innings in both games, and recorded two strikeouts against Heber Springs and six against Pocahontas.

Swiney said the team is currently playing its best ball of the season, and though he acknowledged that the team as a whole is playing very well, he gave much of the credit for the team’s success to the four seniors – Chesney, Truelove, Amanda Sexton and Janae Miller.

“I’m going to have to give it to the four seniors,” Swiney said. “I think they’ve got this group together. They’ve kept them focused and they’ve been trying to be good leaders all year. They’ve picked those young kids up when they needed to be picked up.

“They’ve helped them, they’ve coached them. I’m just going to have to give the credit to those four kids. There are other kids out there, but I’ve really got to give it to those four seniors.”

Lonoke played Brookland, the defending Class 4A state champion, last night after deadlines in the regional tournament championship game. The winner of that game enters this week’s Class 4A state tournament in Mena as the No. 1 East seed. The loser enters the state tournament as the No. 2 East seed.

Regardless of the outcome of that game, the top two East seeds receive first-round byes in the state tournament and will play their second-round games on Friday.