Panthers fall in semis

BENTON – The first two innings ended up being killer for the Benton Panthers in a 6A State Tournament semifinal game against the Russellville Cyclones on Saturday. South No. 1 seed Benton gave up three runs in the first and two in the second to spot East No. 2 seed Russellville five runs in a 5-1 loss to end the Panthers’ season. Russellville will take on the East No. 5 seed Marion in the state championship in Fayetteville on Saturday.
“We’re disappointed,” Benton Coach Mark Balisterri said. “We thought we had a chance at winning it all. That’s 5 out of 6 years (Benton won title in 2009) we’ve gotten beat in the semifinals of the state tournament and it’s getting old. We have to figure out what we have to do to change that. Ninety-seven percent of our team is coming back.
“The seniors did a great job of leading this team; the way they worked, the way they handled themselves off the field. We’re going to miss them, but we’re going to go to work tomorrow. We’re not going to take any time off, mentally for sure. We know what it feels like to be in this situation and we’re going to work from now until this time next year to change what it feels like.”
Though the Panthers got a run in the bottom of the sixth inning on Mark Moyer’s wild pitch, Benton would not get anything else from Russellville’s starting right-hander. Moyer struck out 14 Panthers and scattered four hits without a walk in his complete-game win.
“He’s pretty good,” Benton Coach Mark Balisterri said of Moyer. “He was definitely the best thing on the field today. We were just outmatched on the mound. We had a few guys that got a hit, but we couldn’t threaten enough to put any pressure on him. That’s what you have to do against a guy that throws mid-, upper-80s. He pitched a heck of a game. Hats off to him. His defense didn’t have to do a whole lot.”
Benton junior reliever Ryan Rickford pitched brilliantly in his 5.1 innings of relief, but the damage had already been done. Rickford gave up just two hits and struck out six without giving up a run, and finished the year with a 0.24 earned-run average, giving up just one earned run in 28.2 innings.
“You can’t say enough about him,” Balisterri said. “He’s been doing it all year long. He came in and just did a great job. He completely shut them down. After the second inning, [Russellville] was done at the plate. He went out there and kept them off-balance. I can’t wait to see what he can do next year for us. I think he’s going to fill in for Brian [Krikorian] and be that guy that throws 50-60 innings for us and wins 10-12 games.”
The Cyclones would get a one-out double from Jacob Barker in the top of the first off of Panthers’ starter Chase Nix, and Moyer followed with a single to right field. An error on Colby Johnson at shortstop loaded the bases for catcher Andrew Elam’s RBI single for the 1-0 lead. Cyclone center fielder Garrett Freeman singled in two more for the 3-0 Benton deficit before Nix struck out the next two batters to get out of the inning.
Last-place batter Jacob Boles led the top of the second off with a single to right and went to third on Cody Underhill’s double. After a line out to Cameron Spivey at third, Moyer walked to load the bases and a potential double-play ball was booted by Bailey Mitchell at second base allowing a run to score. Elam got his second RBI of the day with a single to put the Cyclones up 5-0 before Rickford relieved Nix and got Freeman to fly out to left field with a good play from Drew Dyer.
“He couldn’t get ahead in the count,” Balisterri said of Nix. “He hit his spot a couple times and they just hit it. Once we gave up three or four runs, we never gave ourselves a chance to get back in the game offensively and you have to do that.”
Johnson got a single in the first, Barker led the second off being hit by a pitch, but Moyer would strike out the side in the second inning. Mitchell singled to lead off the bottom of the third, but was stranded at second base. Moyer set down seven straight before hitting Spivey, but Mitchell bounced into a 4-6-3 double play to end the fifth inning.
The Panthers would pick up their lone run in the sixth when Chase Nix, now in right field, singled to center field, and Colten Nix beat out the shortstop’s throw for a one-out single. The runners moved to second and third on Brinson Williams’ ground out to short and Nix scored on Moyer’s wild pitch to get on the board. Moyer struck out the first two batters in the seventh before Spivey flew out to center to end the game.
Mitchell went 1 for 2, and Johnson and the Nix twins each went 1 for 3 for Benton’s four total hits.
For Russellville, Elam went 3 for 4 with two RBI and Moyer also went 2 for 3 at the plate.
Despite the loss, the Panthers had an excellent season finishing 25-5 and lose just three seniors – Mitchell, Brian Krikorian and Zach Smiley.
“I’m very proud of this team,” Balisterri said. “We won 25 games with five or six sophomores on the field every day. And three or four juniors that haven’t played before. We have some really good things to look forward to the next two years and we’re not going to be satisfied unless we win that last game. We’re going to work our tails off to get there. Looking forward to making a run next year.”