Pitching, confidence help Cyclones win state title

Donna Lampkin Stephens/Contributing Writer Published June 29, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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The Russellville Cyclones celebrate after winning the Class 6A state championship against the Marion Patriots at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville last month.

RUSSELLVILLE — Russellville baseball coach Matt Long is the nervous type, a pacer and a worrier.

“I get sick and sweaty,” he said of his usual pregame demeanor.

But once the Class 6A State Tournament started, he said, he was “as calm, as cool as the other side of the pillow.”

It was a good omen.

His Cyclones won the school’s first state baseball title since 2001, the second since 1993 and just the third in school history. They beat Marion in the championship game at the University of Arkansas’ Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

“Our kids exuded confidence, and it rubbed off on me,” Long said.

Russellville finished 19-9. The Cyclones allowed just one run (which came on a wild pitch) in the state tournament, beating Siloam Springs in the first round, 10-0; Sheridan in the quarterfinals, 4-0; Benton in the semifinals, 5-1; and Marion in the final, 2-0.

“Our pitching was unbelievable, but people do put the ball in play, and our defense was right there,” Long said. “I’ve heard my whole life that pitching and defense win championships, and we were proof of it this year.”

Mark Moyer, a 5-10 junior right-hander, struck out 14 and gave up four hits in the semifinal win over Benton. Against Marion in the final, he allowed three hits and struck out 10, throwing just 89 pitches. Chase Bicanovsky provided sufficient offense with a two-run, two-out single in the fifth inning.

Moyer was named MVP of the state tournament.

“Pitching was our big strength,” Long said. “For a good bit of the season, we struggled scoring runs, but pitching and defense, from the first until the last, were what kept us in the games and kept us in the season.”

Long, 47, finished his sixth season in Russellville. He grew up in Ash Flat and graduated from high school at Highland before earning his degree from Arkansas State University in 1991.

Since then, he has coached a little bit of everything at several stops, including Greenland, Salem, Atkins and West Fork. He was an assistant baseball coach at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway in 1994.

But this job marked his first state championship.

Long followed the legendary Denny McCrotty at Russellville, who led the Cyclones to their only previous state championships (’93 and ’01). After stepping down, McCrotty served four years as Long’s assistant before retiring.

Two years ago, when this year’s seniors were sophomores, Long said expectations were high.

“We thought we had one of the better teams in [Class] 6A, but we got beat in the semifinals,” he said. “We drug through last year a little bit. The chemistry wasn’t right. We had good players, but they didn’t mold.

“But sometime about when football season ended last fall, we got all the kids together, and the first time we met, somebody said, ‘Coach, we’re going to win it all.’ I knew we had the pitching to do it, but you’ve got to come together as a team.”

They did.

The roster included four senior starters — Cody Underhill at shortstop, Jacob Barker at second base/pitcher, Andrew Elam at catcher and Austin Robinson at outfield/pitcher. Two have signed with junior colleges: Robinson will play for Crowder College in Neosho, Missouri, next year; Barker will play for Seminole State College in Oklahoma.

“We didn’t have a great record, but our theme became, ‘None of them matters except the last four,’” Long said.

Cyclone Athletic Director Johnny Johnson praised the coaches and players.

“Coach Long did an excellent job with this team,” Johnson said. “Cody Underhill and Jacob Barker provided really good senior leadership, and Mark Moyer really came on as a dominant pitcher this year.”

Next year, the Cyclones will return senior pitchers in Moyer and Garrett Freeman.

“And we’ve got some good young arms behind them,” Long said. “We’ve got some good young kids coming. It’s hard to replace four starters, but we’ll try to build a team around pitching. We’re going to have some high expectations again next year.”

The day after the state final, a photograph of Long jubilantly joining his team’s celebratory dogpile ran in the sports section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“You coach 23 years, and it’s always, ‘I want to be that guy,’ me, me, me — and it was fun because when we got the last out, it wasn’t like that,” Long said. “Reality slapped me in the face. It’s all about the kids.

“My joy came out of seeing the kids’ reaction, and I’m also a little kid myself. I love for our kids to act with sportsmanship, class and like they’ve been there before. Later, I asked my friends if it was OK that I joined the dogpile.

“The ones I trust the most said there’s nothing wrong with a coach showing his joy.”

We concur.

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