BENTON — Benton Harmony Grove’s baseball Cardinals had never played at the University of Arkansas’ Baum-Walker Stadium, and when they got the chance in 2019, they made the most of it.
Brandon Mynhier’s team knocked off Central Arkansas Christian — a squad the Cardinals had lost to three times previously — in the Class 3A state-championship game, 4-3, last month to win the school’s first state baseball title at the home of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
And the Cardinal community has embraced the accomplishment.
“It’s a great small school to be at,” Mynhier said. “The community is hugely involved in athletics and academics. It’s a fun place to be because everybody rallies around everyone, no matter what sport it is. All the teachers and administration rally around you.
“Softball won state [last year], and the community rallied around them. Now we had a chance, and all of Saline County was involved.”
He said sheriff’s deputies and Arkansas state troopers met the Cardinals at the county line upon their return from Harrison and their state-tournament wins — 12-4 over West Fork, 10-6 over Ashdown in the quarterfinals, 9-2 over Manila in the semis — to escort them back to the school.
“After the state championship, we didn’t get home [from Fayetteville] until 1:30 a.m.,” Mynhier recalled. “We had a rain delay and didn’t play until 6 p.m. While we were driving the bus home, an officer called me and said, ‘Let us know when you’re here so we can pick you up and take you home.’
“They cared about us and gave us this huge escort back to the school, lights going and everything. There were still some fans in the parking lot waiting to cheer us on when we got home.”
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Harmony Grove closed 21-9.
“At the beginning of the year, with the personnel we had, I knew we had a chance to be pretty good,” Mynhier said. “There weren’t going to be many places where we couldn’t hit or play defense.”
But the Cardinals struggled some early. In mid-March, they stood 4-4.
“We made several errors in some games,” the coach remembered. “I told them if we ever put it together, we could play a long time, but I never could’ve imagined we’d have been able to do all this.”
They finished third in the district tournament and third in the regional to enter the state tournament as a 3 seed, but they made the most of it.
In the state-title game, the Cardinals faced their nemesis CAC, which had beaten them three previous times (5-2 in the regular season, 8-7 in the district tournament and 6-4 in the regional).
This time, senior Shane Small scored on a bases-loaded walk in the top of the seventh for what proved to be the deciding run after the Cardinal defense was able to hold in the bottom half of the inning.
Junior Connor Burrow, sophomore Chase Chilton and junior James McCormick junior delivered 2 hits each. Chilton recorded 2 RBIs and 1 run scored.
McCormick was named MVP.
“CAC is a very good team, well coached with a lot of talent, and we had a lot of respect for them,” Mynhier said. “We never lost to them by more than three runs, but for my guys to be able to come back and beat a team that had beaten us like that to win the state championship — that made it that much nicer, if it could be any nicer.”
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Mynhier grew up a Navy kid.
“I moved every four years until junior high — I was born in Massachusetts, then [lived in] Maine, Washington,” he said. “When my dad retired from the Navy, he got a job in Arkansas.”
Mynhier graduated from White Hall in 2001 and earned his physical education and health degree from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. He spent five years at Watson Chapel, including two as head softball coach and a year atop the junior varsity baseball program, before landing at Harmony Grove.
“We were competitive when I got here,” he said. “So we were just steering things in the right direction. We had to establish a culture and get things going.”
The Cardinals reached the state semifinals in 2015 and ’16.
“We’ve been successful,” Mynhier said. “We were able to make the regional or state tournament several years. Last year was the first time we’d missed out on the state tournament in several years, so we definitely could see the big picture of improvement.”
Six seniors led the Cardinals in their 2019 redemption year — left fielder Small, center fielder Ethan Wetzel, second baseman Elijah King, first baseman/third baseman Dalton Davis, and pitchers Christian Young and Tristen Hammonds.
“Knowing what we’d missed last year, we needed to get back to the state tournament,” Mynhier
said. “They took that goal and ran with it. They helped lead to get us back to that point.
“They knew what they wanted in their senior year. Once we achieved that goal of getting back to the tournament, there was only one other goal — win at Baum. From that point, the guys were locked in.”