New Experience — Ricebirds, Badgers square off in championship debuts

Stuttgart and Arkadelphia are names synonymous with championships — in football.

But few would have guessed that either would contend for a state championship in baseball. After all, neither team has played in a baseball final.

That is until today.

“We came into the season knowing if everything fell in line, everything was going to be OK,” Stuttgart coach Kevin Youngblood said.

And things did fall in line for the Ricebirds (18-8), who started the season 1-4. They won the 2-4A Conference and 4A East Region championships behind a standout pitching staff.

Today, they can win their second state title of the school year, following the football team’s seventh crown in school history.

There is something from Stuttgart’s run to the football title that has carried into baseball season.

“We just love to win,” senior right fielder and quarterback Dontrell Brown said. “That’s all we do around here.”

Arkadelphia (21-7) weathered a tough 7-4A Conference slate with a second-place finish, facing the likes of Central Arkansas Christian and Ashdown in the process. The Badgers dropped their first two to conference champ CAC, but evened the score with wins in the 4A South Region championship and state semifinals.

Overcoming adversity in a tough conference has been the Badgers’ biggest strength, their head coach said.

“We play hard for seven innings,” Brant Matros said. “We have kids who play together well and come together. We were pretty young coming into the season. We had two of our seniors go on to play college baseball, and we had to find someone to fill their roles.”

Four of Arkadelphia’s 2012 starters were seniors. The Badgers are still young with four seniors this year, but they’ve clicked at the right time.

So have the Ricebirds, who had to rebound from a 2-4A District final loss to Lonoke to win their second straight regional tourney.

“We had played Star City at their place and beat them 14-1 (in the regular season),” Youngblood said. “We knew coming into that game, they had already thrown their ace at the regional tournament, and we had an opportunity to make a statement again and make them understand that we were for real. Our guys have worked hard and done a lot of things they’re supposed to do. That’s prepared them for this moment.”

Youngblood will start senior Ragen Counce on the mound, six days after he pitched a complete-game 2-1 victory over Prairie Grove. Counce sports an ERA of about 1.87 and also hits better than .400.

Matros is sending his son, junior John Franklin Matros, to the mound. The Badgers are also counting on their experience at the top of their batting order, led off by junior shortstop Jakhari Howell and freshman infielder Ty Kosters.

Brant Matros likes his matchup with the Ricebirds.

“They’re just as solid a team we’ve played,” he said. “They hit well, play defense, hit their spots. We’re similar. That’s what we rely on.”