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Conway rallies, pays off coach's gamble

Eight pitches into Friday's Class 7A state tournament quarterfinal game with Bentonville, Conway and pitcher James Hicks found themselves trailing by three runs.

Hicks and his teammates responded quite nicely.

Hicks, a junior right-hander, finished with 7 strikeouts in 6 innings, and the Wampus Cats used 10 hits and 5 Bentonville errors to post a 9-6 victory at Vince DeSalvo Stadium in North Little Rock.

Conway (20-4) responded to Bentonville's three-run first inning with four of its own. The Wampus Cats took the lead for good with two runs in the fourth inning. Jordan Wicks' RBI ground out and Andrew Hreha's double allowed Conway to take an 8-6 advantage.

Conway Coach Noel Boucher said he knew he might take some grief by not starting Wicks -- the Wampus Cats' left-handed ace on the mound -- but figured it was his team's best chance of getting to the state championship game next week in Fayetteville.

"I'm sure everybody in the stands was thinking, 'What an idiot,' " Boucher said. "But the kids did great. They came back, didn't give up. They stayed together and it worked out."

Hreha, Cade White and Matt Lloyd each had two hits for Conway. Wicks drove in two runs.

Bentonville lead-off batter Nathan Lyons -- who would later tag Hicks for a two-run home run in the fourth -- hit the first pitch of the game back through the middle for a single. Payton Allen drew a walk, and Ryan Kneeshaw put down a bunt that Hicks threw wildly into the right-field foul territory. Two runs scored and Kneeshaw wound up on third base.

Tyler Johnson's RBI single put the Tigers on top 3-0.

"That definitely was not what we wanted," said Conway center fielder and lead-off batter Parker Gavazzi, who reached base in all four of his plate appearances and scored three runs. "But with this group of seniors, we've been through a lot, we knew we had to rebound and we wanted to do it quick."

The Wampus Cats did, thanks to the first of five Bentonville errors.

Gavazzi and Jack Stroth each drew walks off of Kneeshaw, who matched Hicks' throwing error with one of his own on Lloyd's sacrifice bunt attempt.

The error brought in the first run. A single by Wicks, an error on a ball hit by James Martindale and a ground out by Reed Hughes brought in the next three, and Conway held a 4-3 advantage after the first inning.

"That's what we had hoped," Boucher said of Conway's first-inning response. "They're going to hit it. We're going to hit it. We just needed to hit it more than they did."

Bentonville was guilty of three errors in the first inning and two more in the second.

"What a great way to start, right?" Bentonville Coach Todd Abbott said. "They took a chance and didn't pitch [their ace]. Obviously, they were trying to save Wicks. We jumped on [Hicks]. That was fantastic, but in the end, we didn't play a clean game defensively. Conway played a much cleaner game than we did."

Lyons was 2 for 4 with a home run and 2 RBI. Allen was 2 for 3 with an RBI. Kneeshaw and Keegan Allen also had two hits apiece.

After the first inning, Hicks gave up seven more hits but only one more walk.

"That was huge," Gavazzi said. "James is not the most experienced pitcher, but he came out today and battled. It was awesome to see, and it was awesome to play behind him. I'm so proud of him."

Sports on 05/12/2018

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