First place likely out for Panthers

SHERIDAN – Vying for first place in the 6A South, the Benton Panthers committed five errors and allowed four unearned runs in a 7-3 loss to the Sheridan Yellowjackets on Wednesday in conference action in Sheridan.

“We struggled. That’s uncharacteristic of us,” Benton Coach Mark Balisterri said of the errors. “We don’t usually make errors like that. As a matter of fact, going through the first round of conference only losing one game; it was because we played great defense.

“When you’re not hitting the ball and [not] scoring runs, it makes every play on defense that much harder to make. We’ve been able to come through and make the plays for the most part, but the last couple games it has ultimately cost us the game.”

After a 10-game winning streak, the Panthers (17-6, 8-3 6A South) have lost two straight and have struggled hitting in both games.

The Yellowjackets scored two unearned runs in the bottom of the first inning when the leadoff man reached on a two-base error, moved to third on a sacrifice bunt and scored on a sacrifice fly to make it a 1-0 Sheridan lead. With two outs, junior starting Benton pitcher Coulton Lee gave up a solo home run to left-center field to put the Yellowjackets up 2-0 after one.

The Panthers responded with a run in the top of the second inning when junior Carson Holloway doubled to lead off and ended up scoring on an error to make it 2-1, Sheridan.

Sheridan matched the run in the bottom of the inning and the Panthers scored another in the top of the third to make it 3-2, but had a chance to score more.

“We were kind of matching going back and forth,” Balisterri said. “We had a chance to have a big inning in the third, but we didn’t tag up on a fly ball to left-center field. That hurt us because we could have tied the game.”
Another unearned run in the bottom of the third for the Yellowjackets made it 4-2, but the Panthers fought back in the top of the fourth with a run when senior Ryne Besancon singled, went to second on an error and scored on junior Jack James’ single to center field to make it 4-3.
That would be it for Benton, though, as Sheridan would add three more runs.

Though Lee gave up six runs in five innings, only two of the runs were earned. Lee also gave up six hits and three walks, and struck out six.
“Coulton Lee did a good job as far as competing on the mound,” Balisterri said.

The Yellowjackets now have a 9-2 record in conference play and just have one more obstacle in which Balisterri said shouldn’t be a problem for them.

“I feel pretty sure that Sheridan will win the conference now,” he said. “All they have left is Texarkana and feel like they will handle Texarkana. We’re still control whether we’re going to finish second or third.”

James went 1 for 3 with an RBI and senior Greg Pryor went 1 for 4 with an RBI for the Panthers.

Balisterri said the Panthers are let down about their play lately, especially after starting conference play well with solid defense.
“It’s disappointing and the team is hurting right now because we know we’ve let three games slip away that we could have won,” Balisterri said. “We always talk about if we lose and play our best, the better team wins. Unfortunately, our three conference losses came on games we did not play good. That’s what makes it hurt.

“We have to be good teammates and pick people up when they’re down, and make sure that everybody understands when you’re struggling , the people you can count on the most are the people you practice with every day. We have to come together as a team.”

Balisterri said nothing is lost, though. He explained that Jacksonville was a No. 6 seed in the state tournament last year and ended up winning the championship.

“It really doesn’t matter where you’re at, but as long as you make it to the state tournament,” Balisterri said. “I had an old-timer tell me one time, Coach Billy Bock from Pine Bluff, ‘Coach, if you keep making it to the state tournament, you’ll win it.’ He said the key is to get there. Bottom line, if you can get to the state tournament and have a quality team, you have a chance of winning it.

“We just have to regroup, go to El Dorado on Monday and play the best that we can play.”