Heber Springs continued its magical run through the 4A East Regional tournament with a 7-4 victory over Lonoke on Saturday at Panther Field, catapulting the Panthers into this week’s state quarterfinals.
With a state bid already secure after defeating Jonesboro Westside on Friday, the Panthers surprised the Jackrabbits, who had beaten Heber in four previous games this season.
Heber’s victory over Lonoke coupled with a 13-0 loss to Stuttgart in Monday’s championship game leaves the Panthers (11-16) with a No. 2 seed in the state tournament in Harrison, where they will open play on Friday versus the winner of North Region runner-up Shiloh Christian and South Region No. 4 seed Nashville at 2:30 p.m. on Field 1.
“We haven’t played as bad as it seems like all year long,” said Panther Coach Darren Gowen. “We are a hit here, a play there, an executed bunt here from being a lot different. It’s the difference in winning the conference and coming in fifth. They could have given up but they kept believing in me. We lost our starting shortstop [Paden Flippin] and starting second baseman [Jackson Thomas] last week and all I told them was to do a little extra. Everybody has played so well. They have played so hard and do what I ask them to do. I’m speechless. They are playing their tails off.”
Lonoke improved to 18-9 with a 10-1 consolation round win over Clinton on Monday and will face Gentry (4th North) on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. on Field 1. East No. 4 seed Clinton opens state against South runner-up Hamburg on Thursday at 12 p.m. on Field 2 and East champion Stuttgart (19-11) opens state against the winner of Pea Ridge (3rd North) and Pulaski Academy (3rd South) at 12 p.m. on Field 2.
Playing as the visitors on the scoreboard for the second day in a row, the Panthers also scored first for the second consecutive outing, this time in the first inning as Geoffrey Anderson worked a full-count walk, stole second and moved to third on an error.
With one out, Michael Ludwig drove home Anderson with an RBI, sacrifice-fly to right field, giving Heber a 1-0 lead before Lonoke starting pitcher Lane Moore got out of the inning.
Heber crafty right-handed pitcher Brooks Morgan pitched around a leadoff single by Garrett Spears in the bottom of the first, retiring the next three and eventually leaving Spears stranded at second.
Morgan beat out a bunt single and stole second in the top of the second but Moore induced a pop-up and notched a strikeout, leaving Morgan stranded in scoring position.
Lonoke snatched a 2-1 lead, scoring two runs on two hits in the bottom of the second, starting when Madison James roped a double to deep left field.
A two-out error allowed courtesy runner Nick Graves to score and the ’Rabbits took the lead when Hayden Hambrick crushed an RBI double to the alley in left center, plating Reid McKenzie, who reached by error. After issuing an intentional walk to Spears, Morgan escaped further trouble by retiring Shane Pepper on a groundout to Tyler Dennis at third, leaving runners stranded at first and second.
Moore pitched around a one-out single from Anderson in the third but Morgan held the ’Rabbits scoreless in the bottom half despite a leadoff single by Blake Gooden. With two runners in scoring position following an intentional walk and groundout, Morgan sat down Christian James on a liner to Blaine Hill in right field.
Heber tied the game with one run on one hit in the top of the fourth as Smith pulled a single through the hole on left side and stole second before advancing to third on a sacrifice-bunt from Michael Kramer.
Morgan faked a bunt and lifted an RBI, sacrifice-fly to center that scored Smith as the Panthers tied the score at 2-all but Moore used a strikeout to get out of the top half. Anderson relieved Morgan to start the bottom of the fourth and retired Lonoke in order, including a strikeout.
Moore pitched around a two-out, opposite field single from Anderson in the top of the fifth and Lonoke reclaimed the lead in the bottom half, scoring one run on two hits. Gooden singled, swiped second and scored on an RBI single off the bat of Moore.
A two-out throwing error and walk loaded the bases but Anderson avoided more trouble with a strikeout, using an off-speed pitch to finish the inning.
Trailing 3-2 entering the top of the sixth, Heber rallied with two runs on three hits, ignited by Ludwig’s leadoff single through the hole on left side. Moore notched a strikeout as Ludwig stole second, then Kramer worked a full-count walk as Ludwig swiped third.
With runners at the corners and one out, Morgan pushed a bunt single to the first base side for an RBI that scored Ludwig as Heber knotted the score at 3-all and forced Lonoke to relieve Moore with Gooden.
Derrik Fisher grounded to shortstop and Lonoke attempted a 6-4-3 double play but came up short then a throwing error allowed Kramer to score from third base. Following a single to right field by Nathan Martz, Gooden retired Dennis on a pop-out to second, leaving runners stranded at the corners.
Anderson sat down the ’Rabbits in order in the bottom of the sixth on three ground balls handled by Dennis at third, Kramer at second and Smith at shortstop.
Leading 4-3, Heber added three insurance runs in the seventh as Anderson walked and stole second before Harley Hooten’s bunt caused a throwing error, allowing Anderson to score.
After Ludwig walked, Gooden fired back with a strikeout but the Panthers pulled off a double steal before Kramer sliced a 2 RBI single to right field, scoring Hooten and Ludwig as the Panthers pushed their lead to 7-3. Gooden retired two of the next three, leaving runners stranded at the corners.
In the bottom of the seventh, Heber recorded two quick outs before James worked a full-count walk, causing the Panthers to relieve Anderson with Fisher, who issued a full-count walk to Guy Halbert.
After courtesy runner Graves scored on a throwing error, Fisher took charge on a high pop-up off the bat of Christian James as the Panthers held tight for a 7-4 victory.