By Rob Patrick
FAYETTEVILLE — For those of us who have watched the Bryant Lady Hornets softball team over the last three springs, it has been our privilege.
On Saturday at Bogle Park, the Lady Hornets, led by a core group of seniors that have been involved in four straight title games, became the first in the highest classification to ever win three State championships in a row as they rode an early 8-0 lead to an 8-4 victory over the Bentonville Lady Tigers.
They thus finished 34-0, a “magical” season, as head coach Debbie Clark described it in her annual creative pre-final motivational gambit. After swallowing a worm before her Wynne team’s championship game in 2009; breaking a board for her first Bryant championship team in 2010 then weaving together threads from each player to make a formidable rope last year, Clark performed a magic trick during this year’s pre-game ritual. So, along with another trophy in the new case at the Lady Hornets’ field, there will be a jug to go with the board and rope from the previous years.
Bryant’s senior catcher Jessie Taylor was named the MVP of the tournament, batting .500 (5 of 10) in her team's three wins while guiding freshman pitcher Jordan Williams through most of the semifinal win over Springdale Har-Ber the previous Saturday and through all but one inning of the title game.
After Bryant had taken a 4-0 lead in the top of the first, Williams threw one pitch in the bottom half then gave way to Peyton Jenkins, the senior who had been the MVP in the last two State title runs. Jenkins had suffered a knee injury early in the win over Har-Ber but retained full range of motion and rehabbed every day since then to the point of tears. Wearing an industrial-strength brace, she started the final as the DP and, in three plate appearances, walked, singled in a run and popped out. She pitched the first inning and worked around a pair of walks. Another runner reached base on a third-strike wild pitch but Taylor threw Anna Thomas out with room to spare when she tried to steal second.
Bryant added three runs in the second, highlighted by Kayla Sory’s eighth home run of the season and Williams returned to the pitcher’s circle to go the rest of the way, picking up her second varsity victory in a row after Jenkins had gone 32-0 before her injury.
To further illustrate just how dominant Jenkins had been this season, Bentonville’s four runs were the most any team scored against Bryant all year. In fact, in the last 10 games of the season, Bryant opponents had totaled just three runs altogether. Coming into the game, Jenkins and the Lady Hornets’ defense had allowed a total just 20 runs all season.
“She’s worked so hard,” Clark said of Jenkins. “We wanted to give her a chance, just because it’s so terrible she got injured. I can’t explain why things happen. I’ve been sick all week for her because I know how hard she works. As a coach, sometimes you have to make the hard decisions and choices and today has been bittersweet. It’s been one of the hardest days of my life and one of the happiest.”
Along with the emotion of Jenkins’ heartbreaking injury after such a glorious career mixed into that bittersweet joy after the game as Clark and those seniors — Jenkins, Taylor, Sory, Cassidy Wilson, Jenna Bruick, Brittney Ball, Ashley Chaloner and Ashlyn Lessenberry — acknowledged the end.
“You never know how you’re going to react,” Clark said, “and here I am crying like a baby. It was hard. It’s been so emotional this week. Those girls play so hard and I’m so proud.
“That’s part of my emotion is knowing they’re not going to be with us anymore but I also know it’s time,” she related. “They’ve paid their dues and they’ve left such a legacy for Bryant softball.
“And maybe it’s because I’m so tired,” the coach acknowledged. “We’ve been undefeated and that takes a toll on you as a coach because I try to keep them focused on one game at a time and, at the same time, it’s still in the back of your mind. We had a target on our back. And I like that. I would much rather be the one that everyone wants to beat but, I think, now I’m just breathing finally.”
Williams, who worked 4 1/3 innings of scoreless relief against Har-Ber, looked like she might shut down Bentonville as well. But the Lady Tigers, champions of the 7A-West, didn’t go easily. Though they trailed 8-0 after three innings, they rallied in the fourth. Anna Lowery beat out an infield hit and advanced on an errant throw. With one out, she scored her team’s first run on the second double of the game by Jordan Taylor. Moments later, Bentonville’s Katie Lassina pulled a 2-1 pitch over the fence in left to make it 8-3.
Wilson and Bruick, the Lady Hornets longtime keystone combo, brought the infield together around Williams at that point and Clark joined them, at first allowing Wilson to take the lead in the conversation. Bruick and Taylor chimed in before Clark added her words of encouragement and returned to the dugout.
“They weren’t going to panic,” Clark said. “They kept playing to win and they’re such leaders. Cassidy just stepped up and took over and said, ‘Guys, come on.’ She’s my coach on the field.”
Despite an error that allowed Macey Brake to reach, Williams and the Lady Hornets got out of the inning. McKenzie Rice made a nice play coming in from third on a bunt by Whitney Freeman, then Wilson made a sparkling catch on a pop up, getting full extension as she reached to snag the ball on a full-tilt sprint away from the infield.
“Was that not some growing up for (Jordan)?” Clark mentioned. “We prepared her all week. She’s a lefty, which gives her a little bit of an advantage anyway. And to go and face a team like (Bentonville) with this kind of pressure on her back — I’m so excited as a coach and I’m so very proud of her. And her teammates backed her. When the home run was hit, they went out and said, ‘It’s okay.’ Jessie told her to just keep the ball low.”
With the last two outs of the fourth, Williams actually retired eight in a row before Brake’s infield hit start the seventh. Freeman sacrificed her to second and, with two down, Emma Kinsey beat out an infield hit which Wilson kept on the infield with a diving stop. Thomas singled in a run but then Lowery hit a fly to right that Katie Stillman hauled in to end the game and begin the Bryant celebration.
The Lady Hornets’ road to victory Saturday began with a perfect bunt single by Bruick. After Jenkins walked, Sory started her three-RBI game with a single that chased Bruick home. And, on a late errant relay to the plate, the ball got away and Ball, running for Jenkins, hustled to third with Sory trailing at second.
Wilson made it 2-0 with a sacrifice fly then Kaley Coppock ripped a double to right-center to bring Sory around. Carly Yazza capped off the uprising with an RBI single to center.
The Bryant second was once again instigated by Bruick. Her one-out triple set up Jenkins’ RBI single. Taylor ripped a 1-2 pitch over the third-base bag and into the left-field corner for a single, though Kayla Jolley, running for Taylor, was thrown out trying to reach third on a nice play by the Lady Tigers.
That brought Sory to the plate and, on a 2-1 delivery, she mashed her homer over the boards in left to make it 7-0.
At that point, the Lady Tigers and their fans were looking a little shell-shocked. Even Bryant’s outs were loud ones.
The score became 8-0 in the top of the third when, with two out, Stillman singled and sprinted all the way home when Rice split the outfielders in left-center for a double.
The Lady Hornets made a bid to add to the lead in the fourth when Taylor and Sory each singled with one out and Wilson reached on an error to load the bases. Coppock pulled a shot to Lowery at third. She got the force at third then threw across to Thomas at first. But Thomas was standing right on the bag and when she and Coppock collided, there was some discussion about a possible interference call. But, after a conference, the umpires stayed with the original call resulting in an inning-ending doubleplay.
Bryant finished with 14 hits. Sory joined Taylor with a three-hit day. Bruick and Coppock added two each and all nine of the Bryant starters had at least one hit.
The win extended the team's winning streak to 37 games, a mark those returning will hope to extend.
As for the seniors, they wind up with a phenomenal 109-15 record in four seasons including 11-1 in State tournament games.
All hail the queens of Arkansas high school softball on this the commoration of their coronation.