By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY
A season of ups and downs came to a conclusion for the Heber Springs Panther baseball team on Monday.
Ozark capitalized on its opportunities during the second and sixth innings and defeated the Panthers 7-2 in a 4-4A Conference Tournament play-in game at the Heber Springs Sports Complex.
Heber Springs finished the season with a record of 5-14.
“It was a game of momentum swings,” Panther head coach Monterio May said. “We came out a little flat for the first inning. We didn’t capitalize on Ozark’s mistakes like we should and could have scored more runs. The little things made a big difference in the end.”
Jacob Lawsen led off the top of the second inning for Ozark by reaching on an error. Dax Shaffer followed with a single, and Lawsen scored the game’s first run on an infield out. Rylee Griffin walked to load the bases. Tyler Sanders was safe on an error as Shaffer and Griffin scored for the 3-0 lead.
“I told the team during the third inning we needed to chip away at the lead,” May said. “We scored two runs during the fifth and had an opportunity for more runs before a base-running blunder.”
Corbin Jones and Conner Riddle each hit singles to start the bottom of the fifth. Garrett Hudspeth bunted in an attempt to advance the runners and beat the throw to first base to load the bases. Matthew Cook lined a 2-run single into center field. Easton Cusick, running for Hudspeth, was caught in a rundown between second and third bases for the first out.
The Panthers reloaded the bases with walks to Kenan Sneed and Cole Payton. Larsen relieved McAnally and stopped the rally by striking out the next two batters as Ozark clung to a 3-2 lead.
Ozark put the game away by scoring four runs in the top of the sixth inning. The Hillbillies loaded the bases on back-to-back walks and a hit batsman. Jones, who relieved Hudspeth, hit Sanders with a pitch for the first running of the inning, scoring Cook. The final two runs scored on a balk and a 2-run single by Sebastain Ross.
“We gave up too many free passes (six walks),” May said. “We need to learn from this season and plan to be back in the playoffs next year. I’m proud of the team for never giving up.”
The Panthers will lose two senior starters to graduation — Cook and Hudspeth. May said the team’s future is bright.
“We are losing good seniors, who were outstanding leaders for the team,” May said. “We have a lot of talent returning and more on the way.”
Ozark 030 004 0–7 5 2
Heber Springs` 000 020 0–2 6 3
Ozark hitters — Kayden McAnally 2 singles; Sebastian Ross single, 2 RBIs; Rylee Griffin single, 1 RBI; Dax Shaffer single; Tyler Sanders 1 RBI.
Ozark pitchers — Kayden McAnally(W) 4 hits, 2 runs, 1 earned run, 2 strikeouts, 3 walks in 4.1 innings; Jacob Larsen (Save) 1 hit, 0 runs, 4 strikeouts in 2.2 innings.
Heber Springs hitters — Mathew Cook 2 singles, 2 RBIs, 1 stolen base; Corbin Jones 2 singles; Garrett Hudspeth single; Conner Riddle single.
Heber Springs pitchers — Garrett Hudspeth (L) 4 hits, 4 runs, 1 earned run, 4 strikeouts, 5 walks in 5 innings; Corbin Jones 1 hit, 3 earned runs, 1 walk in 2 innings.