Youthful Rebels enjoy surprising season
Riverside returned to the state baseball tournament for the first time since 1999, despite fielding one of the youngest teams in school history. The Rebels overcame a 0-4 start to the season in advancing to this year's Class 2A State Tournament in Pine Bluff.
"We had a very young team," said Rebel Coach Kevin Hall. "Garrett Weaver and Cody Richardson were my only seniors, but they put together the best seasons of their careers and were great leaders for the younger kids."
Weaver led the Rebels in almost every offensive category, while setting a school record with a .494 batting average. The senior shortstop/pitcher had a .785 slugging percentage and belted three homeruns while driving in 31 runs and scoring 28 more. Weaver, who hit third in the lineup, also swiped 17 bases to lead the team and was one of Riverside's top two starting pitchers.
Richardson batted clean-up for the Rebels and hit .321 on the season. The speedy centerfielder provided outstanding defense, and along with Weaver, led Riverside to an improbable turnaround after several disappointing seasons in a row.
"Garrett and Cody really persevered over the last couple of years," said Hall. "They came to work every day and provided great leadership for our younger players, especially our five freshmen. They played the game right with a good attitude, hustled and never gave up. They were rewarded this year for their efforts. Adversity builds character and they had plenty of that. I am very proud of them and cherish the relationship I've built with them. I really appreciate what they have done and for sticking with me."
Riverside's slow start can be attributed to the fact that the Rebel's basketball team also made it to the state tournament, causing several of the players to get a late start to the baseball season. "We had very little practice early, and to top it off, we had a very tough schedule early in the year," said Hall. "We opened up with Marked Tree, who would go on to an unbeaten season in conference play. But as the year went along, the chemistry of the players got better and better and each player began to learn their roles which molded us into a pretty good ball club."
Riverside's strength was their hitting. The Rebels finished with a .353 team batting average and had five starters who hit .292 or better. Freshman shortstop/third baseman Jake Love was right behind Weaver in the batting race, hitting at a .474 clip, including a .756 slugging percentage. Love, who set the table for the Rebel offense, led the team in runs scored with 30 and finished second in hits with 37. The left handed hitting Love also managed to drive in 16 runs from the leadoff spot, and led the team in doubles and triples with nine and five respectively.
"Jake is one of the best leadoff hitters I've ever coached," said Hall. "I thought he was the best leadoff hitter in the league. He has good speed and really set the tone for our lineup. He's just a freshman and has a chance to be a special player."
Daniel McCormick hit in the second hole for the Rebels and batted .292 on the year. McCormick led the team in sacrifice bunts and stole eight bases on the season while playing a solid second base. "Daniel was one of our two rabbits at the top of the order," said Hall. "He and Jake Love got on base quite a bit, which gave the middle of our lineup the chance to drive in a lot of runs during the season."
Hall pointed to outfielder Cody O'Guinn as the most improved player on the team. The right-handed hitting junior hit just .230 last season, but improved his batting average by 121 points to finish this season with a .351 batting average, third best on the team. "Cody came up big in the number five hole," continued Hall. "He has really worked hard and became a very important cog in the middle of our lineup. The most improved part of our ball club was our hitting, and a lot of that can be attributed to the improvement of Cody O'Guinn.
"Not only did we improve our hitting as a team, but we stole a lot of bases and did a great job of getting bunts down, moving runners along when we needed to, and just doing the fundamentals, something we had trouble with the last couple of years. It was nice to know that we were going to score a lot of runs when we hit the field. It makes a big difference in your confidence."
The Rebels featured two of the better pitchers in the conference in the senior right-hander Weaver and sophomore right-hander Blake Hogan. Hogan, who hit .279 on the season, finished with a 5-4 record on the mound to lead the team in wins. The sophomore topped the team in innings pitched with 57 2/3. Hogan struck out 62 batters on the year and led the team in ERA with a 3.16 mark. Weaver won four games and led the team in strikeouts with 74 while posting a 3.41 ERA.
"Garrett was really steady on the mound for us all season, and Hogan really put things together this year," said Hall. "We will really miss Garrett, but it's good to have Blake back to anchor our pitching staff for next season. We will need kids like Jake Love, lefthander Cody Stallings, M. J. Brewer and Josh Anderson to step up for us next season."
Nick Bagley did a solid job behind the plate for the Rebels, and finished the year with a .250 batting average. Outfielder Tyler Warhurst and freshman first baseman Cody Stallings rounded out the starting lineup for the Rebels. Other team members were Jake Emery and Garron Amos.
Riverside finished runner-up in the north division of the 2A conference and was also runner-up in the district tournament behind Rector. The Rebels finished third overall in conference play.
"The highlight of the year was going to the state tournament, and I think it's safe to say that we were the youngest team down there," said Hall. "We just ran into a buzz saw in the defending state champions, Parkers Chapel. I thought our biggest win of the year came against a solid Hillcrest team, and that victory punched our ticket to the state tournament. We also came back and beat Marked Tree in the district tournament after being swept during the regular season. When you look at the whole picture, 10 of our 13 losses came against teams that qualified for the state tournament. We really played a brutal schedule, but I think it helped us in the long run."
The youthful Rebels will return a strong nucleus next season with 10 of the 12 players returning. "I was really pleased with how we progressed during the year," added Hall. "We just kept getting better and better as the season went along. There were many nights when we started five players who had never played varsity baseball before this season. It was really exciting. I am really looking forward to next year. I think Riverside baseball is going to be fun to watch the next few seasons."