If there were ever such a thing as a redshirt year in high school, 2020 was it.
Covid-19 put spring sports teams behind the eight ball when play was ended after a week or two of action, which eradicated any progress spring sports programs may have made.
Camden Fairview is no exception. The Lady Cardinals field a young softball team, but they've managed to get by on what Coach Kendra Center called "sheer hunger."
"They're hungry," the fifth-year coach said. "We start all freshmen and sophomores with the exception of two. But really, we start all freshmen because those sophomores really didn't get a season. So for them, it's been kind of a culture shock because they're still getting their feet wet.
"But as a whole, things have been good because everybody wants to play after what happened last season."
In the past, the Lady Cardinals, (18-3, 13-1 4A-8), who took home a conference championship by beating Magnolia 5-4 on Wednesday, have had to outscore teams to win. This year, they haven't had to do that, mainly because sophomore pitcher Haylee Monden has been a force in the circle.
"She's phenomenal," Center said of Monden, a 6-1 left-hander who's thrown a perfect game this season. "So for us, offensively we've been able to relax a little bit because we don't have to score as much to win a game."
Center said out of her five seasons as coach, this is the first group that she feels can hit one through nine. Sophomore Arianna Frazier is batting nearly .400, and Alex Chavez, another sophomore, has hit two home runs.
"We've played well in all aspects, but it still comes down to focus," Center said. "That's what I preach to my kids, with them being so young. We struggled with that about midway through our conference schedule, and we had a hard time refocusing.
"Also, these kids have never seen this type of success, and I tell people all the time that winning is a learned behavior. You have to understand that anybody can be beaten on any given day."
LR CHRISTIAN BASEBALL
Snapping out of it
Little Rock Christian was outscored 29-13 during an 0-4 start to the season.
The Warriors haven't looked back since.
LR Christian (20-6, 9-1 5A-Central) has gone 20-2 after the fourth game and is a game up on second-place Benton in the conference standings.
"Our pitchers are throwing strikes, our defense is playing well, and our hitters are having really good at-bats," Little Rock Christian Coach Brandon Eller said. "Honestly during the last few weeks, we've started hitting through the lineup and not just at the top of it. That's helped, but the consistent part that's helped us through the season is strong pitching and the defense that goes with it."
The Warriors have given up just 20 runs during their current 13-game winning streak. Sophomore Reece Tarini is 6-1 with an ERA of 1.72; senior Nathan Schrader is 5-1 with a 1.54 ERA; and sophomores Nate Gross and Grayson O'Dwyer have combined for 5 saves.
The Warriors have scored at least six runs 10 times during their winning streak. Senior Reid Bowman, who's committed to the University of Central Arkansas, is hitting .420 with 13 extra-base hits. Senior Isaac Nowell, a Ouachita Baptist University signee, is batting .394 with a home run. And sophomore Charlie Carter, an Oklahoma State commitment, is hitting .367 with 27 RBI and 2 home runs.
"They've all stepped up, but we've got to keep it going," Eller said. "The biggest games of the year are coming up."
On the surface, Stuttgart is playing as well as any team in the state right now.
The Lady Ricebirds (21-4, 12-0 4A-5) have won 16 of their past 19 games, recorded shutouts in eight of their 12 league contests and earned the top seed in next week's 4A-East Regional.
None of that gives Stuttgart Coach Chason Bowman comfort.
"We don't look too good right now," Bowman said. "I don't know what's up. I mean, everybody kind of battles at different parts of the season, and you have to get hot at the right time. For us, we're not hot right now."
Stuttgart didn't get a challenge during league competition this season, but the Lady Ricebirds do own an earlier victory over Sheridan, the reigning four-time Class 5A champions, and beat 2019 Class 4A quarterfinalist Bauxite twice.
But Bowman lamented the self-inflicted mistakes that he said cost his team in their losses. Those miscues occasionally have him reflecting back to 2019 when his team coasted to an undefeated mark in the 4A-5 and took a 26-4 record into regionals only to lose in the opening round and miss the state tournament.
"If we can get out of our own way, we're a good ball team," he said. "But I'm a glass half-empty guy, so the sky's not falling. It just seems that way."
There's still work to do, but a relaxed approach has Bauxite on the verge of winning an outright conference championship.
Pitching depth has been a force for the Miners, who need to beat De Queen today to wrap up a 4A-7 Conference title. But the team's bats are starting to heat up, according to Coach Michael Mattox, and that's helped move Bauxite (16-8, 12-1) to the front of the line in league play.
Three-time defending Class 4A champ Nashville (23-3, 11-2) sits a game back in second place while Malvern (12-9, 10-3) is in third.
"The kids have loosened up finally," said Mattox, whose team had just two runs in a loss to Benton Harmony Grove on Monday but had 13 runs on 16 hits in an 11-run rout of Malvern on Tuesday. "I think with part of the hitting here the last couple of weeks is that we've been tight. We challenged them as a coaching staff [Tuesday] to play loose, play free and easy baseball like, and to remind them about how much competition we play in the summertime."
Five players had two hits each against Malvern, with junior Dawson Goines going 4 for 4 with 5 RBI.
The Bauxite pitchers have been opposing teams' kryptonite. Three senior hurlers -- Jackson Lindsey, Austin Hillis and Jackson Regan -- have won at least four games each. The Miners play each of their league foes two times, but Mattox has so much pitching depth that none of the seven other teams in the conference has seen the same starter twice.
"Every arm that we have on staff is available," he said. "We're going to go down there and be able to throw somebody that's going to get it done. If we can just keep that free and easy approach at the plate, I feel real good about it."
Several district tournaments and regular-season games were forced to postpone games Thursday because of rain. ... The Nashville Scrapperettes (25-1, 12-0 4A-7) won their 14th game in a row by beating Malvern on Wednesday to solidify not only a conference title but also the No. 1 seed when they host the 4A-South Regional. ... Cabot and Bryant will play for 6A-Central Conference softball lead today in Bryant. Both teams are 10-1 in the standings.