Central Arkansas Christian’s Mustangs repeated as 2-4A district baseball champions last week and now must beat Highland on Thursday in the opening round of the Class 4A East Regional at Trumann to advance to next week’s state tournament.

Hayden Cruce’s team, which finished combined conference play 12-2, improved to 19-7 overall with tourney wins over eStem, 13-0; Southside Batesville, 6-4; and Lonoke, 6-5.

“We’re playing really good baseball right now,” said Cruce, whose team will defend its 2016 East Regional title. “It helps when you have a good group of seniors who’ve been there before. They know what it takes, so they’ve done a really good job of leading us.”

Highland’s Rebels, the fourth seed from the 3-4A, are just 9-14 overall, but they knocked off Gosnell, one of the state’s traditional baseball powers, in the opening round of their district tournament, 2-0, to qualify for the regional. The Pirates closed 15-7.

Highland then lost to Harrisburg in the semifinals, 2-1; and Brookland in the third-place game, 8-3.

“Their overall record is not that impressive, but it sounds like they’re peaking at the right time as well,” Cruce said. “They are playing good baseball, so we’ll have to play our best to beat them.”

The winner will get the survivor of Heber Springs, third from the 2, and Harrisburg, second from the 3, in Friday’s noon semifinal.

The other half of the bracket includes Jonesboro Westside, top-seeded from the 3, against Southside Batesville, fourth from the 2; and Lonoke, second from the 2; against Brookland, third from the 3.

The regional championship is set for 2:30 p.m. Saturday with the third-place game to precede the final at noon.

“We feel like our conference is very, very competitive,” Cruce said. “Our top five teams were all good, competitive baseball teams. We were not very top heavy. As a conference, we feel like we’re pretty strong.”

First-round regional winners will move on to next week’s Class 4A State Tournament at Lonoke.

In the district semifinals against Southside Batesville, the Mustangs took a 3-0 lead after one inning and held a 5-3 edge after three. The Mustangs went up 6-3 before the Southerners added one in the bottom of the seventh.

The district championship against Lonoke was “a great high school baseball game,” Cruce said.

“They played really well; we played well; they made some plays; we made some plays, and we just happened to make the play when we needed it to end the ballgame,” he said.

The teams had split a combined conference doubleheader earlier in the season. This time, the game was tied 3-3 after six innings. In the top of the seventh, Lonoke’s Casey Martin belted a two-run home run, but in the bottom of the inning, CAC’s Braden Quesinberry delivered a one-out, three-run run for the game-winner.