Tuesday, May 19, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Panthers Bogle bound

Leader sportswriter

On Friday morning at Bogle Park in Fayetteville, the Cabot High School softball team will look to do something the program’s never done before, and that’s win a state championship.

In order to achieve that goal, the Lady Panthers will have to knock off the defending two-time Class 7A state champion North Little Rock Lady Charging Wildcats for a third time this season. First pitch of Friday’s championship game is scheduled to start at 10 a.m.

Cabot comes into Friday’s game with a stellar 27-4 record. The Lady Panthers entered the Class 7A state tournament as the No. 1 seed from the 7A/6A-East Conference, while NLR, who has a 20-8 record this season, is the two seed from the East.

The two teams met twice this season. On April 21, Cabot beat NLR 6-1 at Burns Park in what was the 7A-East Conference opener, and on April 23, the Lady Panthers completed the season sweep over the Lady Charging Wildcats with a narrow 6-5 win at the CHS softball field.

Friday’s game will be the CHS softball program’s second-ever trip to the state finals. The Lady Panthers’ only other appearance was in 2000, where they finished as state runner-up to Rogers. That year was only the state’s second for fast-pitch softball at the high school level.

On paper, the Lady Panthers go into Friday’s game as the favorite, but NLR will be the team going in with the championship experience, and several of those current NLR players have been big contributors for those state championship teams the last two years.

“You would think they would have an advantage,” said third-year Cabot head coach Chris Cope. “They’ve been there the last two years. They know how to win a state championship. It’s the first time for our girls, but I think our girls believe they have a chance.

“We’ve made it this far, so I think it’s anybody’s game now. We’re giving ourselves a chance by being there.”

Despite NLR coming into Friday’s game with the big-game experience on its side, NLR head coach Anthony Cantrell doesn’t see it as a big factor.

“I don’t think so,” said Cantrell. “I think any time you beat somebody the way they beat us, they’re obviously going to be the favorite coming in, which they ought to be. They’ve had a great year. Head-to-head, they kind of handed it to us twice.

“Having said that, having that experience may give us a little bit of something as far as what to expect on how things go.”

Neither team has an edge over the other in experience. Both teams are loaded with experienced players, but not all are seniors. The Lady Cats have six seniors on their team, and all six have been major contributors for NLR in their time there.

Those seniors are Lydia Belew, Rachel Gregory, Morgan Seaton, Ashton Bobbitt, Bailey Harris and catcher McKenzie Escovedo, who’s one of the best hitters and catchers in the state.

Other key players for NLR are juniors Sydney Parr and Hannah Lovercheck. Parr, the team’s second baseman, is one of best leadoff hitters in the state with exceptional speed, and sophomore Reagan Sperling is another speedster that led the Lady Cats with five hits in the two April games against Cabot.

Cabot has four seniors, and several talented underclassmen. The most decorated Cabot senior is pitcher/first baseman Megan Goodnight.

Goodnight, an Arkansas Tech signee, transferred to Cabot from Conway for her senior year, and leads the Lady Panthers in batting with a .459 average. She has 50 base hits, 44 RBIs and nine home runs – all of which are team-highs.

Goodnight has also scored 28 runs this season, which is tied for third-most on the team, along with fellow senior Lane Justus. Goodnight and the rest of her classmates suffered through some struggles early in the season, but Goodnight said the quick turnaround can be attributed to hard work and coaching.

“He definitely pushed us,” said Goodnight of her head coach. “We did two-a-days and he really pushed us – him (Cope) and coach (Sean) Coker and coach (Allison) Astin. They’ve really been awesome coaches. These girls, they’ve really influenced me, and they’ve just made me work harder than I thought was possible.”

Goodnight’s senior teammates are Justus, center fielder Erin Eckert and right fielder Shauna Attendorn. All four seniors have contributed to the team’s success, and have done so in different ways.

Justus has spent the bulk of her senior season as a courtesy runner, with speed being one of her biggest strengths. Attendorn has made most of her plays in right field, while Eckert has made plenty of plays both in the field and at the plate.

Eckert has 29 base hits this season, 23 RBIs, 27 runs scored and a batting average of .362. Her fielding percentage in center field is .958.

The three seniors that have been with the program since their freshman year have been a part of one of the biggest turnarounds possible. Cabot won just three games during their freshman year, but when Cope took over head-coaching duties the next year, the team’s win total grew to double digits.

The Lady Panthers won even more games the next year, and have won 27 out of their 31 games played this season.

“I definitely saw us getting better each year,” said Eckert. “You could see us slowly getting better and we knew we had a chance this year.”

“Our freshman year, we only won three games,” said Justus. “So now being in the finals is real big for us. It’s good to have all of us (seniors) together for this last year, especially after the experience we had freshman year.”

The Lady Panthers know the challenge will be great on Friday, but the opportunity to win a state championship will be like a dream come true.

“They’ve been there before and we haven’t,” Goodnight said, “but it’s something we’ve always dreamed of. I mean, we’ve all been playing since we were like 6 (years old), and it’s a dream come true really.”

Though the senior Lady Panthers have been a big part of the program’s turnaround, the same could be said for the team’s underclassmen.

Six of the Lady Panthers’ regular starters in the field are juniors and below. Junior shortstop Heather Hill continues to make strides towards a promising career at the collegiate level.

Hill has a .427 batting average this season, which ranks second on the team. She has 38 base hits, six home runs, 35 RBIs and a team-high 36 runs scored, and she’s a vacuum at shortstop with a .963 fielding percentage.

Other juniors that have played exceptionally throughout the season are second baseman Rachel Allgood, third baseman Macee Abbott and catcher/pitcher Kaitlyn Felder.

Felder earned the win in the circle in the Lady Panthers’ semifinal win over Van Buren on Saturday. She threw a two-hitter that game, finishing with nine strikeouts, but she’s done a lot of damage at the plate this season as well.

Felder, the Lady Panthers’ cleanup hitter, has a .363 average this year, five home runs, a team-high 24 extra base hits (37 base hits total), and 33 RBIs. Allgood hit a solo home run in the semifinals against Van Buren. It was her third homer of the season.

Allgood is hitting .377 this season with 29 base hits, 22 RBIs and 27 runs scored. Abbott has 14 base hits and the same number of RBIs this year, and 22 runs scored.

Sophomores Hannah Montgomery and Lauren McCluskey are the other two regular starters for Cabot. Montgomery plays first base when Goodnight pitches, and when Goodnight plays first base Montgomery stays in the lineup as the designated player.

Montgomery is hitting .310 at the plate this season and has 22 base hits. McCluskey, the team’s left fielder, is hitting .303 with 30 base hits and a whopping 35 runs scored.

Ashlyn Spears is a freshman for the Lady Panthers, and has played well in whatever role she’s been given this season. She’s batting .379 this season, going 11 for 29 at the plate, with four of those hits being doubles. She’s also scored 24 runs.

In the field, Spears plays catcher whenever Felder pitches and Spears even has a win in the circle this season.

Cabot has totaled 280 base hits this season and an overall team batting average of .341. The Lady Panthers’ ability to hit the ball is something Cantrell is well aware of.

“They hit it up and down the lineup,” Cantrell said of Cabot. “One through nine, they hit it as well as anybody we’ve seen in a long time. So that’s the big thing – up and down the lineup they can hit the ball wherever you throw it.”

Cope echoed the same thoughts regarding NLR’s biggest strength.

“Every time they step in the box, they can hit it,” Cope said of NLR. “They’ve got some speed on the bases, but their biggest thing is they can hit it. Every one of them, from one-to-nine hitters, they all can hit it and all have a chance. And their pitcher, she does a good job as well, and they know how to win.”

Depth in the circle has been another strength for Cabot this season. Goodnight has been the ace this year for the Lady Panthers, with a 15-3 record and an ERA of 1.50. She’s also struck out a team-high 77 batters this season.

Felder is the strong No. 2 for Cabot. She has a perfect 8-0 record this year with an ERA of 0.77. She’s struck out 60 batters this season and has given up just six earned runs in the 11 total games she’s pitched.

McCluskey and Montgomery have also earned wins this season in the circle and both are ace-worthy pitchers that are capable of being successful at the position whenever called upon to do so.

Cope has been the head coach of two state championship teams in his coaching career. He won a state championship at Class 4A Dardanelle in 2007 before winning a state title at Class 6A Searcy in 2011, but said this team is the first he’s had that’s deep at pitcher.

“This is the first school that we’ve had depth at pitcher,” Cope said. “At any one time, we’ve pitched three or four different girls, and we have five – a freshman, two sophomores, a junior and senior, and they’ve all been a big part of our success.

“If somebody’s been struggling, somebody’s come in and they’ve taken their place. So that’s been a big factor for us as well.”

North Little Rock also has depth at pitcher, but the Lady Cats’ ace is Gregory, who pitched in the team’s state championship win a year ago. Gregory also pitched both games against Cabot this year.

“She’s our one,” Cantrell said of Gregory. “She pitched in the championship game last year and she’ll probably start this game again this year, but we’ve got a couple of different kids that have come in and pitched for us.

“Rachel’s kind of been our workhorse. At state tournament time, she kind of focuses a little bit more. She pitched really well in the last two games of the state tournament against Rogers and against Bryant. So, hopefully we can parlay that into a good performance Friday against Cabot.”

Having each won a pair of championships as coaches, Cope and Cantrell know how to prepare their teams in the week leading up to a championship game, and the key for Cope is treating it like it’s any other week.

“My philosophy is to keep it as business-like as we always have,” Cope said, “keeping our same routines in practice and since we know them a little bit, maybe work on some different things and fine-tune some things, but at this point we’re just going to keep it business as usual.”

Both teams overcame their share of challenging playoff games in order to get to Friday’s championship game. Cabot, who earned a first-round bye by getting the top East seed, came from behind to beat Springdale Har-Ber 8-4 in last Friday’s quarterfinal round at Veterans Park in Rogers.

The Lady Panthers trailed 4-1 going into the bottom of the sixth inning of that game, but reeled off seven-straight runs in that inning to beat the No. 3 West seed and advance to Saturday’s semifinals, where they beat No. 2 Central seed Van Buren 4-0.

The Lady Charging Wildcats got to this year’s finals by beating No. 6 West seed Fort Smith Northside 8-5 in the first round Thursday, No. 1 West seed Rogers 2-0 in the quarterfinals last Friday, and No. 1 Central seed Bryant 6-1 in the semis on Saturday.

Both coaches agreed that the formula for success on Friday is simple.

“We’re going to have to put the ball in play and see what happens,” Cope said. “Our bats have to come alive and we have to score some runs against them.”

Cantrell expressed the same strategy.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to need to score more runs,” Cantrell said, “and I know that’s kind of a cliché, but you’ve got to score more runs than they do.

“Coach Cope I guarantee you will have his group prepared, and hopefully mine will be, too, and I think it’s going to be a treat for all the people that can get out and come watch the game at 10 o’clock on Friday.”

Cope is proud to be one of the two teams representing the 7A/6A-East Conference, and central Arkansas.

“It’s always exciting when your conference has some success in the state tournament,” Cope said, “and it shows how tough your conference is. Now one and two is playing for the state championship, and it’s great for central Arkansas.”