Central Arkansas Christian secured the 7-4A conference baseball championship Monday with a come-from-behind win over Ashdown, 4-3.
Ryan Stauder’s Mustangs moved to 9-10 overall, 6-1 in conference play. With the top seed for the district tournament at Ashdown later this week, they have a bye to Saturday’s semifinals and a berth to next week’s Class 4A South Regional, also at Ashdown, next week.
At deadline, Stauder wasn’t sure what time his team would play Saturday. Win or lose, the Mustangs will play Monday in either the consolation game or the district championship.
"We always like to make it interesting, but having those close games will be important down the stretch," Stauder said Monday. "When you can pull out come-from-behind victories, that can pay off from a mental toughness situation later on in the playoffs. While it’s not always fun as a coach, it’s definitely a character-building experience."
Monday’s game was a seesaw contest, with CAC taking a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the third and Ashdown tying it in the top of the fourth. The Mustangs scored two runs in the bottom of the fourth for a 2-1 lead, but the Panthers got a base hit with the bases loaded in the top of the sixth to score two and take a 3-2 lead.
With two outs in the bottom of the sixth, senior Dylan Huckaby boarded and stole second and third. Senior Turner McDaniel hit a ground ball between third and short to score Huckaby and tie the game. After Turner stole second, Jack Partlow walked and Jack Thomas delivered a double that scored Turner to give the Mustangs a 4-3 lead.
The defense still had some work to do. With two outs in the top of the seventh, Ashdown put runners on first and second, but senior first baseman B.J. Bull caught a line drive to end the game.
With the loss, Ashdown fell to fifth in the league standings. Arkadelphia is the second seed for the district tournament, with Malvern, Nashville and Ashdown comprising the top five.
The Mustangs were to prep for the post-season against Little Rock Christian on Tuesday.
"Little Rock Christian is doing very well in the 5A-Central this season," Stauder said. "They will be a tough game, but we scheduled them for a good matchup heading into our district tournament. It should be a good game."
Last week, the Mustangs lost a pair of non-conference games, to Little Rock Catholic, 7-4, and to Lonoke, 6-3.
"We played pretty well against Catholic," Stauder said. "It was 5-4 going into the top of the seventh. Against Lonoke, we left the bases loaded to end the game.
"In both of those games, our bats were close. We’re getting lots of base runners, and even though we’re just scoring three or four runs, I feel like we’re about to break loose."
Lonoke finished runner-up in last year’s Class 4A State Tournament.
In the recent 8-4 conference win over Bauxite, the Mustangs jumped out to an 8-0 lead and had opportunities to invoke the 10-run rule.
"We would like to start finishing games better, but overall it was a good all-around win," Stauder said. "We did a good job staying patient at the plate against a solid pitcher and were able to get him out of the game after 101 pitches and only four innings of work. That patience was key for our offensive success, and it allowed us to get that early lead we held onto."
In that game, Joey Pinney went 1-for-2 with two runs scored, two walks, one home run and two RBIs. Ryan Faulkner was 1-for-4 with two RBIs. Landon Hearnes got the win, giving up four hits and four runs and striking out nine in six and two-thirds innings.
In a 3-2 conference win over Malvern, Stauder said both teams struggled at the plate.
"But we found a way to move runners and manufacture runs even though we were held to three hits," he said.
The Mustangs built a 2-0 lead that Malvern tied in the fifth. Thomas reached on a one-out walk in the bottom of the fifth and eventually scored the game-winning run on a passed ball with two outs. Pinney got the complete-game win, allowing five hits and striking out 11 in seven innings..
"It was a great ball game and even though we didn’t swing the bats that well, I was proud that our guys were able to find a way to win by manufacturing runs any way they could," Stauder said.
The Mustangs struggled in a 13-3 non-conference loss to Harding Academy. They led early, 1-0, before the Wildcats got their bats going.
"We didn’t help ourselves by committing six errors, but they just played a great ball game against us that night," Stauder said, adding that the Wildcats should be a contender in Class 3A — after winning state titles in football and basketball.
Chase Dowell went 2-for-3 with two RBIs; Thomas was 1-for-3 with a run scored and McDaniel was 1-for-2 with a home run.