Sitting at Baum Stadium watching Arkansas complete a doubleheader sweep of Mississippi Valley State on March 25, the Junction City baseball team promised to be playing on the field in May.
The goal of reaching the 2A state championship is nothing new for a program with the pedigree of the Dragons. Junction City has won seven state titles, tied with Sylvan Hills for second most in Arkansas history and behind only Pine Bluff’s 10.
For this year’s squad, though, it seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream. During a tournament in Horatio, just two weeks before the Razorback games, Dragons coach Joe Paul Hammett called his players, “the worst team he’s coached in 20 years.”
Hammett admitted Monday afternoon that it was a “stupid thing to say,” but his team has certainly responded in an effort to prove him wrong. In fact, Junction City is now just one game away from winning its first state championship since 2004.
Senior Parker Hammett cruised after a rough first inning and totaled 10 strikeouts in a complete-game performance as Junction City beat Woodlawn for the fourth time this season, 5-2, at Taylor Field.
The semifinal win is something coach Hammett probably would have had a hard time envisioning when his team discussed the idea in Fayetteville.
“We’ve been hot since about the middle of April,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys.
“Early in the season, if it could go wrong, it went wrong. There were more down times than up times.
“But I think that made these guys tougher and it’s paying off now for us.”
Junction City (23-12) will face Walnut Ridge (27-8) in the championship game at 7 p.m. Friday. The Bobcats, behind senior Baron Estes’ complete-game shutout, earned a hard-fought, 1-0 win over Parkers Chapel in Monday’s first semifinal.
“We’re excited, especially these seniors,” coach Hammett said. “Three years ago when my seniors were ninth-graders, we played up at UCA and we weren’t quite ready. (Parkers Chapel) basically beat us in the first inning.
“But we’re excited to get another great opportunity to play at Baum Stadium.”
Parker Hammett’s job on the mound against the Bears (30-6) was a major reason the Dragons will get the opportunity.
However, it looked like the senior, just one of two on the squad, wouldn’t even make it through the first inning.
Hammett walked Trey Chapman, gave up a single to Colton Williams and hit Jacob Richardson with a pitch to load the bases with nobody out. J.P. Aiken and Taylor Stitt followed with back-to-back walks to give Woodlawn a 2-0 lead.
Hammett, though, locked in, getting a pop-up and two strikeouts to escape further damage.
“That first inning was about as rough as he’s had this year,” coach Hammett said of his son’s opening frame. “I figured he just had some adrenaline pumping, and if he escaped with just two or three runs, we’d be alright.
“And after that inning he really zeroed in. Against a team like Woodlawn, that’s doing something.”
Woodlawn coach Tommy Richardson knew his team missed an opportunity in the opening frame.
“You can’t let somebody off the hook like that,” he said. “You get a big hit in that situation and you score five or six runs.
“It was a frustrating inning even though we got two runs.”
Richardson said the bigger mistake was letting Hammett get in a groove after that inning as the senior allowed just three batters to reach over the final six frames.
“The bigger problem was we let him settle in,” Richardson said. “We stopped staying on our approach. I think we lost a little focus there.
“We let him get back in the game.”
Hammett got all the run support he would need in the Dragons’ three-run bottom of the second inning. Junction City hit four doubles off Woodlawn starter J.P. Aiken in the frame. No. 5 hitter Will Smith got things started with a one out double, and the Dragons’ 7-8-9 hitters — Keegan Hanry, Colton Pratt and Joe Lowe — drove in the runs with their two-baggers.
“The ball was carrying well (Monday),” Richardson said. “It would have carried well for us, but we just didn’t give it a chance to.
“We just didn’t hit the ball well (Monday). It just wasn’t our day.”