For the second straight year, Buffalo Island Central traveled to Fayetteville on the campus of the University of Arkansas to play for the Class AA State Championship at Baum Stadium. For the second straight year, the Mustangs came away as the bridesmaids, losing a 7-6 heartbreaker to Horatio when Tournament Most Valuable Player Dustin Wolcott delivered a two-out, two-strike, two-run single off Mustang ace Brandon Ballard to give the Lions the State Title.
It looked as though the Mustangs were destined to claim their second state title of the year, having won the State Crown in basketball earlier in the year. BIC had risen from the grave against Greenland with a miraculous come from behind 4-3 win on Monday afternoon at Norphlet before defeating the host school and tournament favorite on Tuesday 4-1 in the semi-final game.
The championship game was a see-saw affair as both teams took turns taking the lead. Horatio took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second but watched BIC rally with two in the third on a sacrifice fly by Preston Despain and an RBI grounder by Ballard. Horatio came right back with two runs in the bottom of the inning when Wolcott laced an opposite field two-run, two-out double to give the Lions a 3-2 advantage. BIC tied the game in the top of the fourth when catcher Jordan Phillips led off with a double and later scored on Hunter Smith's sacrifice fly. But Wolcott, who went 3-4 and drove in five of the Lions' seven runs, delivered a two-out single to right field to put Horatio back on top 5-3.
The Mustangs rallied for three runs in the top of the sixth to take a 6-5 lead when Smith drove in his second run of the game with an RBI double and then Brooks Taylor drove in two more with a single through a drawn-in infield.
Horatio threatened in the bottom of the sixth, but Ballard got out of trouble when Taylor threw out the potential tying run at home.
After the Mustangs failed to score in the top of the seventh, the Lions began their winning rally when Justin Craig led off with a single to center and lead off hitter Jake Surber reached on a bunt single, putting runners at first and second with no outs. Cattlin Ray sacrificed the runners to second and third to put the winning runs in scoring position, with only one out. Ballard enticed Dustin Plunk to foul out to first baseman Derek Rolland who made an acrobatic catch at the top of the dugout steps for the second out as both runners had to hold.
That brought Wolcott to the plate with first base vacant. But Mustang Coach Todd Rhoades, who had thoughts of walking Wolcott, elected to pitch to the Lions' cleanup batter. Ballard worked the count to 2-2 before Wolcott blooped a fly ball to rightfield that Smith dove to catch, but trapped, as both runners scored easily, giving the Lions their third state championship since 1997, sending the Mustangs home heartbroken.
Horatio, 29-9, had also pulled out a miraculous victory earlier in the tournament when they trailed 11-0 in the regional semi-finals before rallying to beat Spring Hill 12-11 to keep their state tournament hopes alive.
"Our guys do a great job of staying on an even keel," said Horatio Coach Lance Spigner. "We've battled back from large deficits all year long, and I told our guys we could do it again."
BIC, who finished the season 25-7, was led at the plate by Taylor who went 3-4 and Smith who had two hits and two RBIs. Ballard, 9-2, took the loss, allowing 10 hits and five earned runs in 6 2/3 innings of work. The senior righthander struck out eight while walking only one.
Matt Edwards, 9-3, picked up the victory for Horatio, going the distance, allowing seven hits and four earned runs while striking out three and walking four.
"I told my players before the game that we are the home team and we have a chance because we are going to bat last," said Sprigner. "I just had a feeling we were going to win today. I wasn't sure they (BIC) were going to pitch to Wolcott, but when they did I just knew he would get a hit. He is a great two strike hitter. He's been doing this all year long."
"It's a tough way to lose," said Rhoades. "You talk about a game of inches. A lot of other things could have happened. We battled back and their guys battled back and put it in play and we didn't in certain situations. I thought about walking Wolcott but we decided to be selective with our pitches. On the 2-2 pitch I called it up and in but Wolcott did a great job of putting the bat on the ball. Wolcott produced when it was time and you have to give him credit. He got a hit off a great AA pitcher. He just did a good job of battling all day long."
"We are very disappointed, but I am very proud of our kids for going to the state title game two straight years," continued Rhoades. "I just wish things would have turned out differently. We had a chance, but we came up a little short. It's great to make it to the state tournament championship game two straight years, but like I told the kids, we let this one slip away. You don't get many chances for state titles. They are very precious. Our defense was very good all day. Jordan Phillips made a great throw to gun down a runner at second in the sixth inning and Derek Rolland made a play that you see on 'Sports Center' to get the second out in the seventh inning."
BIC advanced to the state title game by defeating Foreman in first round action before coming from behind to defeat Greenland in the quarter-finals with a three-run, two-out seventh inning rally. In the Greenland game, the Mustangs were down to their last strike on four different occasions, but came up with three runs to steal the victory. Brooks Taylor began the rally when he was hit by a pitch with two outs. Taylor stole second and rode home on a single by Preston Despain, who also stole second and moved to third on an infield hit by Brandon Ballard. Ballard stole second, giving winning pitcher Derek Rolland a chance to give the Mustangs the lead. With two strikes, Rolland blooped a Texas Leaguer to shallow rightfield that bounced off the rightfielder's glove, scoring both Despain and Ballard to give the Mustangs the lead for good. Rolland picked up the win, striking out 12 while allowing only three hits, all back to back in the third inning, when Greenland scored all their runs. Rolland battled all day long, walking 11, but continuously pitched out of trouble to keep the Mustangs in the game. Despain led BIC at the plate, going 3-4 and scoring twice.
In the semi-finals, the Mustangs knocked off tournament favorite Norphlet with a 4-1 victory behind the strong pitching of Ballard ,who had fired a one-hit shutout two days earlier against Foreman. Norphlet had not lost to a Class AA team all season before the Mustangsdefeated the host team, who had accumulated more than 100 victories in the last four years, including the 2003 state title.
BIC scored two runs in the first inning with the help of two walks from Norphlet pitcher Tommy Head (5-3). Norphlet struck back in the bottom of the first when Arkansas State University Baseball recruit Nicholas Lambert drilled a home run to pull the Leopards to 2-1. BIC got the run back in the top of the third when they scored an unearned run. Norphlet mounted their biggest threat of the game when Head's double put runners at second and third with no outs. But Ballard enticed the next batter to hit a fielder's choice back to the mound as the senior righthander threw out the runner at home before retiring the next two batters to get out of the jam. Jordan Phillips accounted for the Mustangs last run with a lead off homer in the top of the sixth. Ballard then retired the Leopards in order to close out the game, sending the Mustangs to the home of the Hogs.