SHERIDAN — Sheridan’s baseball team has reached at least the state semifinals seven times since 2010.
In 2019, Mike Moore’s Yellowjackets won their third state championship in the past five years, matching titles in 2015 and ’17.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Moore said of the recent run.
Since 2015, the Yellowjackets are a combined 107-25, a winning percentage of .811.
What’s their secret?
“We have really good players, for one,” Moore said, “but there are other factors: continuity in the program; expectations, high expectations; teaching them how to be mentally tough; and just really trying to build a team of people who are more concerned about winning than who gets the glory.”
• • •
In 2019, the Jackets finished 26-5, capped by their 2-0 victory over conference rival Benton in the Class 5A championship at the University of Arkansas’ Baum Stadium.
But the success was in no way guaranteed.
“We had a lot of question marks going in,” Moore said. “We were very young but talented. We knew we had good pitching coming back that would give us a chance, but we had lots of inexperience in the field.
“We graduated a large group of seniors the year before, so we started the season very inexperienced, with a lot of new faces who had not played much varsity ball. They were good, talented players, but they hadn’t had that experience. I knew it was going to be a growing process, but I also knew we’d have the talent to do it if they’d just buy in and do what we told them and taught them.”
A number of intrasquad games prior to the season helped put Moore’s youngsters into situations with which they needed to be familiar.
“We grew up pretty quickly,” he said.
The Yellowjackets’ first loss came to North Little Rock, which went on to claim the Class 6A state title, 3-2. They were 3-1 before falling in back-to-back games to Little Rock Christian, 6-1, and Sylvan Hills, 10-9, in the Sheridan tournament.
“After that Sylvan Hills loss, we told them, ‘We’re not going to be defined by one win or one loss. Keep working and getting better every day, and by the end of the season, we’ll be there,’” Moore remembered.
Junior Tyler Cacciatori said that after graduating a big class in 2018 and with a new conference alignment for ’19, the Yellowjackets knew they’d have to play their best just to reach the state tournament.
“We were not sure of our pitching staff, with only Haydn Finley and me back with experience from last year, but Jackson Sorey and Brandon Arledge really came through, and we won a lot of close games that we lost at the beginning of the year,” Cacciatori said. “Those close games pulled us together as a team.”
After the back-to-back losses, the Yellowjackets reeled off 14 consecutive wins before being run-ruled by Benton, 10-0, on April 16.
“We had beaten them 9-2 the first time,” Moore said. “You can’t win them all in baseball. We regrouped and won our conference by two games.”
Sheridan took the top seed from the South into the state tournament, where the team knocked off Greene County Tech, 6-5; Vilonia in the quarterfinals, 6-2; and White Hall in the semis, 10-0; to advance to the final against Benton, second seed from the South.
In Fayetteville, Cacciatori led the Yellowjackets to the 2-0 win. He was two batters away from a complete game when he reached the maximum pitch count of 110 after six 1-3 innings.
“In those state-tournament games, we weren’t going to be denied,” Moore said. “Our kids never got flustered, never got shook up. They would be behind and figure a way to win. I can’t tell you how many times we should’ve lost a game, but we just didn’t.”
The coach said this was the most enjoyable season he’d had.
“They were all in,” he said. “That was the key— no petty jealousies, no ‘This isn’t fair,’ none of that kind of stuff. It was one of those years you could see them getting better and see that we were getting where we wanted to be.
“We were so inexperienced to start the season, but those guys grew up in a hurry. They had a strong work ethic, took coaching well, played together as a team, and all bought in.”
• • •
Moore, 56, grew up in Little Rock, graduating from Mills High School. He played pitcher and first base at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia from 1980-84 and earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, then went across the street to Henderson State University, where he earned a master’s degree.
But the process wasn’t exactly linear.
“When I first went to Ouachita, I was going to be an accountant,” he said. “I took my first semester of classes, then went home and worked for my uncle in his accounting firm over Christmas break, and I realized at that point, ‘I do not want to do this.’
“So I finished the year, changed my major to physical education and decided I wanted to coach.”
Moore met his college sweetheart, Marla, when she was secretary for OBU baseball coach Van Barrett, who arranged for the two to meet. The couple married in 1984.
After they graduated, they took jobs at Sheridan. He just completed his 34th year at the school. Besides baseball, he coached football for 30 years, moving from junior high to the high school level. Eventually, he gave up football and added cross country.
“It was kind of an unusual deal,” Moore said of being hired as head baseball coach. “I came in the middle of the year. They’d stopped baseball for a couple of years, and they decided to restart it, but the coach they had lined up to do it accepted a job at semester and left.
“I was in the right place at the right time.”
Sheridan’s sixth win this season marked Moore’s 600th.
Four seniors led the Yellowjackets in 2019 — left fielder Montana Korte, pitcher/third baseman/first baseman Haydn Finley, second baseman Ruston Johnson and left fielder Steve Reaves.
“They were very good leaders,” Moore said. “That was a big key. They were very consistent in their work ethic. They’d been to the finals before, and they knew what it took to get back. They were real good at being coaches behind the scenes, keeping everybody in line and focused on the task.”
Korte has signed with Henderson State. At press time, Moore said, Finley was in the process of making his decision.
“With our senior leadership — Korte, Johnson and Finley — we worked hard down the stretch, and everything fell into place, said Cacciatori, who committed to the University of Arkansas as a freshman.
Moore said he had heard much about Cacciatori when he joined the varsity after that commitment.
“But he wasn’t quite ready,” the coach said. “He grew up, but last year, he never really got untracked. He slightly tore a tendon in his knee, and we didn’t get him last year until spring break, and he never fully recovered.
“This year, he came in healthy, and he just got better and better as the season went on. The last two games, he gave up one base runner, a single and no walks.”
Moore said he knew Cacciatori wanted to make a statement in the championship game at Baum Stadium.
“He wanted to show everybody that being a commitment meant something. He struck out 10 and gave up 4 hits.”
• • •
Moore’s attention has now turned to 2020. But in his program, the past informs the future.
“I told them that two years ago, these seniors were standing on the fence watching at Baum Stadium, and their job was to take it all in and remember how we got there,” the coach said. “This year, we had a whole new group just in the dugout, but they were still such a big part of our team.
“Now it’s their turn to remember how we got there and get us back next year. We’ve got a good group coming back. Our struggle will be to keep them focused on the task at hand.
Looking back on his three championships, he said, each was special in a different way.
“The first one in ’15 was the first for my career and a very talented group,” he said. “In ’17, it was similar to this year in that we were young, but we put it together and got it going. We went 33-5 that year.
“This year, just to be so inexperienced and so young and to compete against the caliber of teams we’re playing — this was by far the toughest tournament to win of the three, with [Class] 5A and 6A combined.”
He said that in ’15 and ’17, four to six teams had a chance to win. This year, though, 10 or 11 had realistic shots.
“It’s just hard to win at this level,” he said. “Everybody’s good. Especially in a single-elimination tournament, if you have one bad inning or one bad situation that you can’t overcome, you don’t have a second chance.”
Sheridan has now swept baseball and softball state championships twice — in 2017 and ’19.
“When you sit down now and look back at all we did, it’s just hard to believe what these kids were able to accomplish,” Moore said.
“Baseball is a game where little things make a difference,” Cacciatori added, “and we did all the little things toward the end of the season that took us to our state title.”