Lions end 31 year State Tourney drought
Manila returned to the state baseball tournament for the first time in over three decades, capping off one of their most successful seasons in recent memory.
The Lions, who ended the season 16-9, finished as the 3A-3 conference runner-up before capturing the 3A-3 District Championship at Brookland. Manila went on to finish third in the regional tournament at Cave City, giving the Lions their first state tournament bid in 31 years.
"This was a big thrill for myself and the whole team," said Manila Coach Steve Milligan. "I was fortunate enough to experience three state tournament trips as a player at Tuckerman under Coach Morgan Gilbert, but this was the first time one of my teams has gotten the opportunity to play in the state tournament."
The Lions began the season slow, losing four of their first six games, but put things together and got stronger as the season went along. "We put together an eight game winning streak in early April, and then started playing really well before the district tournament. We beat a good Piggott team on a Monday, and then swept Brookland in a doubleheader the next day. We lost to a very good Tuckerman team who won their regional in a close 4-3 game that went extra innings, but it showed us that we could compete with anyone."
Manila picked up their biggest win of the year by knocking off East Poinsett County in the finals of the district tournament to take home the championship. The win over the Warriors snapped a five game losing streak to EPC that extended over two seasons. "That was such a big win for us," continued Milligan. "We lost to EPC three times last year and had dropped a pair of one run decisions earlier this season to them, so the win in the finals of the district made it that much sweeter. We rallied from a 5-2 deficit with a four run inning. Three of the runs came with two outs, which just made it that much better," said Milligan.
Milligan said another highlight came against Cotter in the regional tournament. Hunter Bryan and Ross Malloy connected for back to back homeruns to spark an 11-0 win in the consolation game. Cotter had defeated the Lions in last year's regional tournament.
Manila's season ended with a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Gurdon in the first round of the state tournament, but things look bright for the Lions, who return six of their nine starters. Manila loses three quality seniors, including clean-up hitter and ace pitcher Chad Nunnally. Nunnally led the Lions in both homeruns and RBIs. The big right-handed slugger, who hit .390 on the season, ripped six homeruns while driving in 32. One of Nunnally's blasts was a tape measured 400 foot-plus shot in the regional tournament against Salem. The senior also led the team in wins, and struck out 101 batters in 78 innings.
The Lions also lose right fielder and starting pitcher Ross Malloy, who hit .315 on the year, as well as slick fielding second baseman Jace Elkins, who batted eighth in the lineup. Other seniors include Trey McCormick and Drew Warren. "All of our seniors will be sorely missed," said Milligan. "This was a great group to work with."
Junior Frankie Cowgill set the table for the Lions from the leadoff spot. The centerfielder hit .415 on the year and stole a team high 34 bases. Cowgill now has 111 stolen bases for his career, and is within 15 of the state record, which stands at 126. "Frankie, barring injury, will break the state record for stolen bases next season," said Milligan. "He is an excellent base runner and a very good centerfielder."
Junior shortstop Hunter Bryan led the team in hitting, batting a robust .454 from the number two spot in the batting order. "Hunter was a transfer from Indiana, and was just a godsend for us," said Milligan. "He solidified us both offensively and defensively. He is a great hitter and makes all the plays defensively. He won our gold glove award."
Junior third baseman Michael Shedd also had an outstanding season, according to Milligan. "Michael played as solid as you can at third base this year, and has the best swing of anyone on the team. He is probably our most consistent player," said Milligan. Shedd finished the season with a .430 batting average.
Kyle Evans struggled somewhat offensively, battling back from a knee injury suffered during the football season, but still managed to hit .270 on the year and came up with several big hits. The junior hit .470 as a sophomore.
Catcher Luke McLaughlin, another junior, also batted .300. "Luke is as steady as you can get behind the plate, and really handled our pitchers well this season," said Milligan.
Freshman Tracey Reinhart batted ninth in the lineup and finished the season with a .300 batting average. Reinhart was the designated hitter while sophomore Zack Birmingham handled the first base duties.
"This was just a very good year for our team, and I am really looking forward to next season," said Milligan. "Going to the state tournament for the first time in 31 years was quite an accomplishment, and was one of our goals when the season started, so we were very happy to have made it. I am very proud of the whole team."
Juniors on the Lion roster include Hunter Allensworth, Jacob Britt, Luis Cruz, Cody Hamilton and Trey Wells. Sophomores are Jared Hembrey, Tray Malone and Blake Wheeler. "Tray Malone really came on at the end of the year as a pitcher for us," said Milligan. Malone pitched really well in the season and we are counting on him heavily to be one of our aces on the mound next year."
Other team members are freshmen Mack Benson, Jeremy Goff, Jordan Jackson, Brent Ray, Landon Spain and Joe Thompson. Assistant coaches were Craig Wheeler and Don Nunnally.