SHERWOOD â€” Before Saturday's game against Russellville, Benton head coach Eric Ryan was unsure who he would start in the circle. With three quality pitchers to choose from, anyone could have started, but Ryan decided to go with the proven-senior leader Jessica Smith.
"She has had a little bit more pop on her fast ball and good movement," Ryan said.
It paid off as Smith pitched a complete game, allowing just one run (earned) on three hits with four strikeouts and one walk as the Lady Panthers defeated Russellville 7-1 at Sherwood in the second round of the 6A State Tournament.
Her one bad inning was in the first when she gave up a run and the early lead. Ryan blamed that on it being the team's first game of the tournament.
"Russellville had already played a game, they were a little bit more relaxed and everything," Ryan said. "But she came back and did a good job and hit her spots."
When it came to down to it, Ryan picked Smith to start because she is a senior.
"This is her fourth year being here, and I thought she could be a little bit more relaxed and level headed," Ryan said. "She has really moved the ball well."
Benton scored four runs in the top of the first inning. Three consecutive hits by Tiffani Pledger, Bailey LeVart and a double by Kori Parker gave Benton a 2-1 lead. One out later, Hailey Durham walked and Parker scored on a RBI ground out by Jessica Hardig.
Brandi Barnes singled home a run as well to give Benton a three-run lead.
"I feel like our energy was not only good on the field but also in the dugout," Ryan said. "One thing about a team is they feed off energy, whether good or bad. We had a lot of good energy today and it showed up, especially in that first inning."
Benton scored again in the fourth inning thanks to a single by LeVart that plated Drew Melton, who reached on a one-out infield single.
Benton added two more in the bottom of the fifth on Melton's second hit of the game, which scored both Franklin and Durham. Franklin had a one-out single, and Durham reached on a dropped fly ball to the outfield.
"The ones that were up there have been there before," Ryan said. "They understand that the game of softball is a game of momentum. Once one team gets the momentum, you got to do something to get the momentum back."
Russellville took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first when they scored on a walk, stolen base and a single.
Benton will play Mountain Home Monday at 4 p.m. in the semifinals. Last season, the Lady Bombers defeated the Lady Panthers in the state finals, and the year before Benton beat Mountain Home in the semifinals.
"They are a very good ball club," Ryan said. "They hit the ball very well. They have a very good pitcher in Anderson. They have a good ball club.
"We are going to have to come ready."
Pledger had two hits and scored a run. LeVart was 3-4 with an RBI and a run scored. Parker had a double and two RBIs.
Franklin was 2-4 and Durham had a walk and scored twice. Hardig had one RBI, and Barnes had a single and an RBI. Melton had two hits, scored a run and had two RBIs.