STAR CITY — The only thing the Nashville baseball team has talked about since March 1 is qualifying for the 4A state tournament it would be hosting in mid-May.
“It was our whole goal of the season to be playing in Nashville on May 15,” Scrappers coach Kyle Slayton said. “We’ve had some struggles this season, but I thought the last four or five games,we really started peaking at the right time.”
Nashville looked much better than their No. 4 seed would indicate in beating top-seeded host Star City, 6-2, in the first round of the 4A South Region tournament on Friday afternoon.
The win qualifies the Scrappers (18-10) for the state tournament and advances them to the semifinals of the regional, where they’ll face Ashdown, which defeated Crossett 10-0 in six innings Friday night.
The loss ends the season for the 8-4A Conference champion Bulldogs (19-6).
“I told them, ‘Champions hang their head high,’” Star City coach Scott Johnson said of his postgame message to his players. “’Of course, we wanted to win and, of course, it hurts, but you’re going to go through a lot of things in life tougher than this.’ …
“We need to come back hungry next year and work harder. For whatever reason, we just couldn’t put it together (Friday).”
The young Star City squad will lose just one senior in second baseman Max Ross, who finished 1 for 3 in his final game.
“He showed his true character this year,” Johnson said of Ross. “When some others walked out on us, he was the only senior that stayed.
“I will never forget that as his coach. He was part of three conference championship teams in his four years. He’s the only senior to do that in school history.”
Next year, Star City will bring back third baseman Cain Patton (1 for 2 with an RBI on Friday) — the only junior on this year’s team — plus a loaded 12-man sophomore class.
The future juniors include Friday’s starter Blake Wynn, who despite taking the loss finished the year with a 7-2 record and a sub-2.00 ERA. Also included in the standout class are Austin Powell, who finished 2 for 4, Garry Hill and Cole Muckelroy, who each went 1 for 3 with a run scored.
“We have a bright future ahead of us,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, this makes us hungry for the future.”
The future looks increasingly bright for the Bulldogs, but they showed their youth in the deciding top of the fifth inning of Friday’s loss.
The game was tied, 1-1, entering the frame, but four two-out errors — along with three big hits for Nashville — helped lead to five unearned runs that blew the game open.
On the other side, the Scrappers showed their experience behind senior pitcher Alex Curry and six other 12th-grade starters.
Curry who allowed just the two runs on had seven strikeouts and no walks in a complete-game effort. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, though, for the pitcher who beat Star City in regionals as a sophomore and earlier this year, too.
Star City recorded eight hits off Curry, including two each in the first three innings, but only had one run to show for it until the sixth inning when a sacrifice fly pulled the Bulldogs within 6-2.
“I knew that when I got myself in the jams,” he said, “I just needed one good pitch to either cause a groundball or a pop up.
“I had all the confidence in the guy’s behind me, because I knew they wanted it as bad as I did.”
Slayton said it’s easy for his team to be confident with Curry on the mound.
“Our kids play a little different with Alex on the mound,” he said. “With him or Justin Reed out there, they just play a different kind of baseball.
“I knew when we got to six (runs) that would be plenty for Alex. He’s pitched well for us.
“I’m just so proud of my seniors. We’ve got 10 seniors and they’ve worked their tails off to get here.”
The pressure of Friday’s win-or-go-home game was nothing new for the Scrappers.
Nashville finished the year with a 3-4 record in 7-4A Conference play, and need to win its first two games of the 7-4A District tournament against Bauxite and Malvern just to qualify for regionals.
With a spot already locked up in the state tourney, Curry was quick to dismiss the notion of a letdown following Friday’s season-saving win.
“If we win (Saturday), then we’ll get a bye in state,” Curry said. “The top two teams (in the South Region) get a bye, so we just need to have the same mindset.
“We had a goal to reach the regionals and we did it. We had a goal to reach state and we did it, so now we just set another goal.”