Shane Fullerton said he’s a fortunate coach.
Fullerton, who coached the Harding Academy Wildcats baseball team to its second consecutive Class 3A state championship and the third in five years, is the 2018 Three Rivers Edition Coach of the Year. His Wildcats finished the season 30-7.
“This season was very special to me on a lot of levels,” said Fullerton, who just completed his eighth year as head coach. “Winning back-to-back state championships is great. We all want to win our last game. We know that very few teams get to do that. We got to do it because I’m surrounded by such great people.”
Harding beat Horatio 4-3 in the state-championship game May 18 at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
“Our kids are not perfect, but they are a special bunch of hardworking kids with great attitudes,” Fullerton said. “I told our Arkansas High School Baseball Coaches Association Clinic that we won the state championship with the genes of our kids. We just have athletic kids, but we also have great attitudes, and they work hard. They make it a pleasure to coach every day.
“I’m also surrounded by a great group of coaches in other sports. We support each other, root for each other.”
Fullerton said he’s blessed to have three assistants. Alex Smith, a former Harding University pitcher, is his full-time assistant, while Dave Karaff and Kaleb Hawkins are volunteer assistants.
“Not many people can say they have that,” Fullerton said of Smith. “He does an amazing job.
“On a daily basis, we go out there four strong, and it’s just a situation that I’m blessed to have and appreciative of.”
Harding played a tough schedule. Their seven losses came to Little Rock Catholic, Mayflower twice, Mobile Christian of Alabama, Fayetteville, Bald Knob and Kennett, Missouri.
Despite the losses, Fullerton said, he knew his team could get back to the state finals.
“There was never a question in our minds that we could get back there,” he said. “Now, whether or not we were going to … We don’t make a habit of doing a T-shirt that says we’re going back to Baum. We expected those things. Our kids have been around enough to know that breaks have to happen. You have to play well at the right time.
“What we want to do is to make sure we’re representing that gray area between cockiness and confidence in the right way. We wanted our kids to be very confident without assuming that things are going to be handed over or that it’s a given. Our kids really handled that well.”
Fullerton said every season starts with pitching.
“It always starts on the mound,” he said. “Are you going to have the guys who throw strikes? We’re blessed enough to have that.”
Fullerton said his team was able to hit well all through the lineup.
“We were a team that was going to defend,” he said. “We were also a team that stole a lot of bases. We were a multifaceted team. We hit it well. We pitched it well. We defended it well. We ran the bases well.
“We had some weapons that really and truly meant you had to be winning some games or you weren’t getting it done. That’s not to take away from the daily grind that our team has. That goes back to their attitudes.”
Fullerton said his first four hitters were all seniors — Peydon Harlow, Pate Fullerton, Seth Morgan and Dalton Koch.
“You basically have four 1-4 hitters,” Coach Fullerton said. “You’ve got the defense up the middle, and our top-three pitchers were in that group of four. I would say that 75 stolen bases came out of that top four.”
In the championship-game win over Horatio, Harding never trailed, jumping out to a 2-1 lead after the top of the sixth. The score was tied 3-3 heading into the top of the seventh, when Koch scored on a wild pitch to give the Wildcats a 4-3 lead.
Harlow, pitching in relief of Koch, allowed one hit in the bottom of the seventh, but that was his only base runner.
“It was as complete a team effort for what these guys did as I’ve ever been a part of,” Fullerton said. “I can’t imagine, as a coach, being in a better situation.”
Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or email@example.com.