Originally published April 12, 2018 at 03:26p.m., updated April 12, 2018 at 10:33a.m.
Fort Smith Northside
The Grizzlies (8-17, 3-4 7A-Central) have already equaled the number of 7A-Central conference wins from a year ago and they are only halfway through the league schedule. But Fort Smith Northside coach Brian Fry said it's going to take more to reach the goal of qualifying for the state tournament.
"It seems like the conference is more level this year," Fry said. "I think it's going to take a minimum of five wins to get in this year and maybe six where three wins got in last year. Every game, every pitch is going to be big."
It's been six years since Northside made the state tournament, after qualifying in 2011 and 2012, Fry said. But the Grizzlies have 15 seniors to go with some talented sophomores that have the team competing well in the 7A-Central. Northside has a pair of narrow losses (2-1 to Little Rock Catholic and 11-9 to Cabot), so the record could even be better.
"We were two hits away from being 5-2 at the turn," said Fry, who is in his ninth season as head coach at Northside."We started four sophomores last night."
The Grizzlies have leaned on seniors Jackson Scrivner and Jake Rincon, along with sophomore Khaden Washington on the mound, Fry said. But they have just two juniors on the team.
"Jackson and Jake have been setting the table for us," Fry said. "With Khaden on the mount, that's where our confidence is at it's highest. He's going to give us a chance."
The Hillbillies suffered a gut-wrenching 1-0 loss to end end their season a year ago, but they return many key parts for another run at the state tournament.
"We graduated two seniors and another one moved away, but we brought back eight guys who hit a lot for us," Ozark coach Brett Stone said. "We were 17-7 last year and lost 1-0 to Dardanelle in the first round of the district tournament. Our guy threw a no-hitter and lost."
Ozark (15-3) has won six of its last seven with that lone loss coming to Class 6A power Greenwood. Seniors Eddie Graham and Dougan Phillips form a nice 1-2 punch for the Hillbillies. Graham is 5-0 on the mound with a 1.66 ERA and is second on the team with a .386 average. Phillips is an anchor behind the plate and currently hitting .352, but sophomore Bryant Burns has been an offensive spark plug.
"He's hitting .431 and hitting in the three hole for us," Stone said. "He was a good hitter for us as a freshman, but he's just taken that next step this year."
Ozark relies on solid pitching and defense and those areas have been keys to the team's success.
"Our pitchers have done a great job throwing strikes and for the most part, we've played pretty good defense behind them," Stone said. "In the three we've lost, we have kicked the ball around a little bit. But we've got three pretty good pitchers that I feel like give us a chance to win."
Senior Josh Williams has been strong again in relief. He's 4-0 with a 1.70 ERA.
"Josh starts in right field for us, but I've been able to put him in big situations and he's gotten the job done for us," Stone said.
Stone, who is in his second season as head coach at Ozark, likes the way his team is playing with two weeks left before the conference tournament, but he knows they will need to be at their best.
"Our conference is tough with Booneville and Pottsville, there won't be any easy games," Stone said.
The Bulldogs (20-3) appear to be hitting their stride, notching their 12th consecutive win on Wednesday.
Greenwood coach Trey Holloway hopes to get a couple of key players healthy as postseason play is right around the corner.
"We try not to get caught in winning or losing, just talk to them about sticking with the process and keep them humble," Holloway said.
Senior Ryan Daggs suffered a torn meniscus early in the season, but Holloway hopes he can still help in the postseason. In addition, sophomore lead-off man Colton Sagely was injured making a diving a catch against Fort Smith Northside.
"We hope to get Colton back within the next week or so," Holloway said. "Daggs was our starting third baseman and won four or five games on the mound for us last year. We're gonna try to get him back to give us a bat off the bench or maybe an inning here or there."
The Bearcats lost just three starters from last year's state tournament team, but it's taken some time for the team to get comfortable, coach Darby Ulmer said.
"We're missing two really good players from a year ago, but the kids are settling in better," Ulmer said.
Booneville (9-5-1) has won four consecutive games and are led by juniors Carson Ray and Brandon Ulmer. Ulmer, who committed to Arkansas State in the fall, is hitting over .500 and is 4-1 on the mound with a 1.35 ERA. He plays shortstop when he doesn't pitch, but will likely play in the outfield in college.
"We've got four guys hitting .400 or better and we've hit 11 home runs this year," Ulmer said. "We had a good start beating Greenwood and (Fort Smith) Southside, then hit a rough stretch. But we've won four in a row and we're hitting the ball good."
Booneville will host its conference tournament in two weeks.
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