Lady Bulldogs’ drive for repeat starts today

If White Hall is the favorite to repeat as 5A state softball champion, coach Terri Smith doesn’t want her team to think that way.

“I want them going in thinking they’ve got to prove themselves,” the 17th-year Lady Bulldogs’ coach said. “I already told them, they’re not going to hand it right back to you.”

After all, White Hall (20-5, 13-1 5A-South) does have a blemish on its conference record — and it’s from the same team that’s hosting this year’s 5A tournament.

That team, Hope, is the fourth seed from the 5A-South. So, unless conference champions White Hall, Beebe, Sylvan Hills and Greenbrier can dominate the next three days, this year’s state tournament could be wide open.

“Everyone’s after you,” Smith said. “Now, instead of the target on someone else, the target is on our backs. Last year, we flew right into the radar; this year, the target’s on us.”

And that’s how White Hall, which lost only four players from the 2012 team, has played this entire season. Sheridan (twice), North Little Rock and Benton also have defeated the Lady Bulldogs, but not by more than two runs.

“Five losses have been by a total of six runs,” Smith said. “Even when we lost a game, the girls gave everything they had.”

The Lady Bulldogs are consistent at the plate, led by freshman Lauren Graves’ .464 batting average. Senior Rachel Box follows with a .454 clip and junior Abby Weaver is hitting .433.

Senior Sydnee Clark is the ace of the pitching staff, but White Hall has also gotten strong innings in the circle from sophomore Karia Beth Hall and Weaver. Pitching statistics were not available.

White Hall will begin its postseason run at 5 p.m. today against Greene County Tech at Lady Cat Yard in Hope. The winner will play Jacksonville or Alma at 2:30 p.m. Friday.

Also in the 5A tournament, 5A-South runner-up Watson Chapel will take on Paragould at 2:30 p.m. today at the Millennium field in Hope. The winner of that game will meet Sylvan Hills or Morrilton at 5 p.m. Friday.

Is this Sheridan’s time?

Coach Eddie Paul Woodall doesn’t mind the favorite label placed on Sheridan, especially since his team finished unbeaten in the 7A/6A-South Conference.

“We’ve had a great year,” he said. “Anything less than that will be tough for us. We’ve been beating on that door. It’s time to open it.”

Today, Sheridan (24-2, 14-0 in 7A/6A-South) opens the 6A state tournament against Little Rock Parkview, the eighth seed from the East, at 2:30 p.m. today at Hickey Park in Russellville. The winner will meet Marion or Texarkana on Friday.

Sheridan has won a conference championship in two of the last three years, but the state tournament has been a place of heartbreak for the Lady Jackets in recent memory. They reached the semifinals in 2010 and 2011 and blew a 4-0 lead going into the seventh inning of a 5-4 loss to Searcy in the 2012 quarterfinals.

“Losing like we did last year, that’s stuck with us all year,” Woodall said. “We had a really good chance to win last year.”

Eight of Woodall’s players are hitting .300 or better. Junior Morgan White leads the way with a .458 average, but Hunter Clark (.456) has a team-high four home runs, while junior leadoff Lauren Mitchell hits .428 and Arkansas-Monticello signee and catcher Allison Stipes is batting .421.

Sophomore Alivia Reed is knocking on the .400 door (.393) while driving in 33 runs and belting two homers. Senior Morgan Cotton and junior Madison Crosby each hit .353 and sophomore Taylor Norman bats .320.

Woodall added first baseman Tiffany Easter also has been a big part of the Lady Jackets’ success.

So has junior Sidney Bonner, who has a 12-1 pitching record this season. But Sheridan will start sophomore Emily Hicks (4-0) against Parkview.

“We’ve been pretty good for a long time,” Woodall said. “We feel like we had chances, and we feel like this is a good chance.”

Fillies go for the upset

Pine Bluff went 10-12 overall and 2-10 in the 7A/6A-South, but the tough conference schedule could help the Fillies in the 6A state tournament.

“Playing that kind of competition has got to help,” coach Carlis Shelby said. “But sometimes it beats you down. The nonconference games, we do them like our conference people do us.”

Today, Pine Bluff will have to play one of its best games of the season to have a shot at beating the No. 2 seed in the East, tournament host Russellville. That game is scheduled for 5 p.m. at Hickey Park, and the winner will play Lake Hamilton or Jonesboro on Friday.

Shelby hopes the Fillies can play as well as they did during the first four innings of Monday’s home game against Benton. It was 1-0 before Pine Bluff’s pitcher got tired and Benton took advantage with 11 runs in the fifth inning for a 12-0 win.

Shelby will send senior Cessiley Johnson (8-11) to the circle against Russellville.

Offensively, the Fillies are hitting the ball hard, but right at defenders, Shelby said. A few hits in the gaps are what they need against the Cyclones.

That and good health.

“I’m proud of my girls,” Shelby said. “They hung in there through all these injuries we’ve had. We’re not completely healthy.”

Shelby said junior shortstop Ajia Richardson, a tennis and basketball standout, just returned to action in the Benton game after being out with a broken hand.

Lady Bears try to shine at night

If anything is going to be different about Woodlawn’s first state tournament appearance in three years from other games this year, it’s the start time.

Woodlawn will play its first night game of the year against Conway St. Joseph at 7:30 tonight in the 2A tourney at Norphlet. It’ll be the Lady Bears only night game, because if they advance, the rest of the rounds will be played during the day.

So how will the Lady Bears react to the late start?

“Hopefully real well,” coach Chad Hutson said. “We’re 22 and 8. We played 30 games. The time’s just going to change just a little. Hopefully we come out and keep trucking. These kids from day one have been doing that.”

Woodlawn has had a strong season with a mixture of experience and youth. Two juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen start for the Lady Bears, who won the 7-2A East District and finished 2A South Region runners-up.

But as long as they “dream crazy,” a motto they borrowed from NCAA champion Alabama, a state championship might be in the works.

“Our overall demeanor and attitude is so great,” Hutson said. “That has been a big deal for us.”