STUTTGART — Many of Stuttgart’s baseball players got an exercise in the thrill of victory last December when they helped carry the Ricebirds to a state football championship.
But who knew they could repeat that exercise later in the school year?
“I really didn’t think about it,” said senior Ragen Counce, a pitcher who played wide receiver and defensive back in the fall. “I was just planning on getting through the districts and regionals. Luckily, we got to state.
“Probably, when we won our last game against Prairie Grove, that’s when I realized we’re a good baseball team.”
That was just Saturday, when Stuttgart won 2-1 to qualify for its first state high school baseball final.
Now, a school steeped in football tradition (with seven state championships) is a victory away from pulling off a football-baseball double. And the talk of the town is starting to shift from the Ricebirds’ gridiron glory to their newfound success on the diamond.
“It seems like the town is surprised because it’s never happened around here in history (in baseball),” said senior Dontrell Brown, the Ricebirds’ quarterback and right fielder. “It’s been quite a shock. You talk to people, they don’t even know about it. They don’t follow baseball like they do football.”
The baseball Ricebirds (18-8) didn’t quite grab the town’s attention when they started the season 1-4, but a usually tough nonconference schedule had plenty to do with the team’s start. They were 1-8 last year before winning their regional tournament and finishing the season 19-12 and in the second round of state.
This year, the sense of urgency was a little more immediate.
“We stopped being selfish,” Brown said. “Early on, you’re really not as focused because the end of the season is not near. As it starts getting closer, you start to think about it more. Each game could be your last one.”
Stuttgart has won 17 of its last 21 games, including five straight since losing the 2-4A District final to Lonoke. The Ricebirds, who captured the 2-4A Conference regular-season title, rebounded to win the 4A East Region and defeated 8-4A champion Star City 12-2 and Prairie Grove in Harrison to advance to Saturday’s 3 p.m. title bout with Arkadelphia at the University of Arkansas’ Baum Stadium.
Outside of a winning attitude, the common denominator in the Ricebirds’ football and baseball seasons has been defense, which baseball head coach Kevin Youngblood knows all too well as a defensive coordinator.
“Defense wins championships in football and any other sport, having that defensive mentality that we’re going to be really aggressive and attack folks,” he said. “Seven of our nine starters are football players.”
At the heart of Stuttgart’s baseball defense is the pitching staff of Jon Curtis, Hunter Harris and Counce, who will start against Arkadelphia.
Counce has an earned run average of about 1.87, Youngblood estimated, and is coming off a complete game against Prairie Grove. Curtis, who can throw up to 84 mph, has picked up some big saves this season, while Harris possesses a “very good” two-seam fastball.
“I don’t have an ace,” Youngblood said. “I have three guys who are equally good that bring different things to table. You can throw either of those three guys, and you’ll be OK.”
When the Ricebirds take to the diamond in Fayetteville, the experience of December’s glory will come in handy.
“The state championship for football helped prepare us, because we know what it’s like now to be in a championship game,” Counce said.