LONOKE — Union County scored five runs in the fourth inning to take an 8-5 lead, and memories of Pine Bluff’s collapse in the 2012 Babe Ruth 16-year-old state final against Lonoke played in Ernest Wooten’s mind.
“I told my guys we’re not going through that anymore,” Wooten said, recalling Lonoke’s two wins to clinch the title. “And they came today and battled.”
But Cameron Banks and Aaron McDonald silenced Union County’s bats the rest of the way, and the Tigers answered back offensively to win the South Arkansas Senior Babe Ruth (16- to 18-year-old) state championship 11-8 on Tuesday at the Lonoke Parks and Recreation field.
The Tigers (14-3), winners of 11 straight, earned a berth in the Southwest Regional tournament, which begins July 18 in Nederland, Texas. And Wooten’s nerves calmed considerably — before they woke up again by an ice-water bath.
“Everyone on the team says I’m a nervous kind of guy,” he said. “They said, ‘Coach, you’re too nervous for us,’ but they stuck together and I’m proud of them.”
Pine Bluff responded after a quiet first two innings in which it trailed 3-0 and went ahead 4-3 in third on five hits, including doubles by Trevor Langford, Jordan O’Guinn and Chris Williams. Langford led the Tigers offensively going 3 for 5 with three RBIs and two runs scored, but thought at first Union County might not provide as much of a challenge as it did.
“They beat Hamburg 15-14 and we beat Hamburg 12-0, so I was expecting an easy game,” the Watson Chapel graduate said. “They came out and played hard, and we had to fight to the end.”
McDonald faced only seven batters in the final two innings and held Union County to a single to pick up the victory. The greater El Dorado-area ballclub, which had to beat the Tigers twice to win the championship, had already scored eight earned runs on nine hits before starter Banks threw a perfect fifth inning.
Banks settled down after giving up three runs on three hits to the top four batters in the Union County lineup in the first inning. But the Big Purple tagged him again in the fourth with five runs on six hits, five of them consecutive, to go up 8-5.
That lead narrowed to 8-7 in the top of the fifth after J’Mar Johnson and Tre Harris hit back-to-back sacrifice grounders. In the sixth, Pine Bluff went ahead as Jaylen Jackson laced a two-run double.
Langford lined his second double of the day in the seventh to finish the scoring. After hitting the first batter in the Union County seventh, McDonald retired the next three to set off the Tigers’ celebration.
Adam Graham, who batted 2 for 4 with a double and scored twice, provided the defensive highlight of the game with a hustle from second base and a diving catch beyond first for the second out in the fifth inning.
“We strive on pitching and defense,” Wooten said. “Our defense was a little sluggish at the beginning, but that play right there, everybody in the dugout jumped up.”
Jones added to the reel with a crucial running catch near the center-field fence for the first out in the seventh with a runner at first.
Also among the Tigers’ 11 hits, Chris Williams, Braylen Jones and O’Guinn each had a double, Ti’Montai Bolden had two singles and Tre Harris added a hit to go with an RBI.
Clay Henry was 3 for 4 with two doubles to lead Union County. Five Purple pitchers took the mound, with Matt Lansdell suffering the loss after going the final three innings.
Pine Bluff defeated Camden 4-3, Southwest Arkansas 12-5 and Hamburg 12-0 in the tournament to reach the final.