Stuttgart softball Coach Chason Bowman would love nothing more than for his team to roll into the upcoming postseason battled-tested, especially over the back end of its schedule, but the weather has thrown a wrench in his plans.
Rain has caused several of Stuttgart's games to be canceled, particularly over the second half of the season. Those cancellations have also cost the team a chance to challenge themselves, and that's important, according to Bowman, because they're already done with conference play.
"All this dang rain, we just can't get in a groove," Bowman said. "We were supposed to play Conway [on Wednesday] in a game that we'd already rescheduled from last week, and of course, it had to be canceled altogether because of the downpour. We were both at the point to where we couldn't get it in at all because we've all got more important stuff going on than to just see who the better team was.
"We'd loved to have played them, though, because it's good competition for us, and we need that. But this year, we've just had so many cancellations. It seems like every time we get ready to play a really good team, it gets canceled. It's frustrating."
The Lady Ricebirds have been equally frustrating for their 4A-5 Conference opponents.
Led by four returning all-state players, Stuttgart (17-3, 6-0) outscored its conference foes 57-0. It also received a forfeit victory over Mills, which ultimately allowed the Lady Ricebirds to run its league winning streak to 39 games dating to 2018.
"We've played well," Bowman said. "We had high expectations going into the season. Last year, I really didn't know because covid got us the year before, and like everybody, you just didn't know what to expect. Honestly, I was just happy that we made the state tournament.
"But this year, I don't want to just make state. I want to win the whole thing. So from day one, we've had those high expectations for ourselves."
Despite believing his team would be among the best in Class 4A all along, Bowman revealed he's been a bit surprised by how well his pitcher and catcher combination has clicked.
Junior pitcher Emma Banks has won 13 games and registered 177 strikeouts. Meanwhile, junior catcher Lauren Spoon has been swinging the bat well and controlling things behind the plate.
"I knew that they were going to be good, but I've been beyond pleased," Bowman said. "They've really, really done a good job. And also, I'm happy about how we've been hitting, especially the home runs. The ball has been jumping off the bat for us this year.
"We've changed some swings, and it's showing."
Seven players have hit home runs for the Lady Ricebirds, who are hoping to make an even deeper trek through the playoffs after reaching the quarterfinals a year ago.
Now if they can just get a few games in before then.
"We're going to try to play [defending Class 3A champ] Baptist Prep next Monday," he said. "Hopefully, rain won't be a factor. I had Quitman scheduled for May 2, but they may not be able to play because of their conference tournament. So I'm trying to find some other teams available to play to get ready. It's just been a weird year with the weather, though."
WEST SIDE GREERS Ferry Baseball
Arms leading Eagles' race
A year after coming up two runs shy of advancing to the Class 1A state title game, West Side Greers Ferry has played like a team intent on going further in 2022.
The Eagles (13-4, 9-1 1A-2) have won five games in a row and six of their past seven going into today's massive conference clash against Norfork (17-3, 7-2), which has won 14 games in a row and is tied for second place in the loss column with Izard County (16-4, 10-2). A victory by West Side Greers Ferry would move it one step closer to claiming a potential conference title.
"We've been playing pretty good here lately," Eagles Coach Shane Davis said. "Pitching and defense has been solid for us over the last several games. We're still not hitting it the way we need to hit it, but I tell you what, we can win some with pitching and defense. That's what we're doing right now."
Davis, who's led the Eagles to the semifinals in each of the past two full seasons (2020 was eventually canceled early because of covid-19), mentioned that his team is notorious for starting slow because most of players also play basketball. That, he noted, has led to his batters taking a bit longer than normal to get their timing right and the pitchers finding their spots at a consistent rate.
It's usually not until April that West Side Greers Ferry hits its stride, Davis said. He's hoping they're squarely in the middle of it now.
"We want to try to carry that over into May," he said. "We've probably got the deepest pitching staff we've had. I've got four or five guys that I feel like are capable of winning a big game on the mound, and that's probably more than most people in our classification have. I'm hoping that's going to be an advantage for us come district, regional and especially state tournament time."
Sophomore Jacob Carlton, who also leads the team in runs batted in, has thrown 20 innings over the past three games. During that stretch, he walked 3, struck out 24 and allowed 1 unearned run. He's also won his past three starts. Also, freshman Max Gipson, junior Dax Hipp and senior Brenton Knapp have been solid. Knapp's classmate, Travis Gentry, is also a key piece for the staff.
Davis also revealed that senior Asa Carr has amped up his play over the past month and is batting .450.
"I think it's starting to come around," Davis said. "I told the guys that we've got to figure out ways to win the high-scoring games, too, because we can't rely on our pitching and defense to be spot on every game. But we've starting to be a little more consistent offensively, and that's always a good thing."
Big games coming
Conway got a huge road victory earlier in the week over North Little Rock, which put it solidly in the No. 3 spot in the 6A-Central. Today, the Lady Wampus Cats will try to inch closer with a big home showdown against Cabot.
In fact, the next four games are all important for Conway (8-7, 6-3) in terms of both league positioning and overall confidence. On Saturday, the Lady Wampus Cats face red-hot Gravette (17-5), which has won 10 of its past 11 games, before playing at reigning Class 4A champ Morrilton (15-5) on April 25 and at Fort Smith Northside (11-9, 5-4) on April 26. Northside beat Conway earlier and is a game behind in the standings.
For Conway Coach Chata Hickey, it was crucial to get their daunting stretch off on the right track.
"It was good to get that North Little Rock win out of the way," she said following her team's 4-1 victory over the Lady Charging Wildcats on Tuesday. "We've got to close out. In that loss to Northside, we didn't play to our potential. We ran ourselves out of the game, had some bad base-running and defensive errors, didn't hit well. ... It was a culmination of everything.
"We're looking forward to that game because we have a chance to reprocess everything that went wrong, and hopefully have a different outcome. But even before that, we've got three tough ones."
That tough span begins with league leader Cabot (15-1, 8-0), which knocked off Conway 4-1 on March 29. Lady Panthers pitcher Akayla Barnard held the Lady Wampus Cats to two hits and struck out 12 in a complete-game victory.
"Timely hitting is something that we talk about all the time," Hickey said. "When you're playing the level of a North Little Rock, a Bryant, a Cabot, you can't afford to leave anybody on base. You've got to have every run that you can get. So getting that timely hitting, getting everybody in that you can, that's crucial if you're going to win games."
Lincoln freshman Brinkley Moreton cracked home run No. 14 on the season in the Lady Wolves 16-1 victory over Huntsville on Tuesday. She also threw 11 strikeouts in the win. ... Defending Class 3A state baseball champion Harding Academy ran its winning streak to 16 games after beating Rose Bud 10-0 on April 19. The Wildcats' three losses were to Conway, Little Rock Catholic and Valley View -- teams from higher classifications. ... Class 6A champ Rogers (18-4, 10-0) remained perfect in the 6A-West after taking two games from Bentonville earlier in the week. The only loss Rogers has suffered to a team from Arkansas was March 1 when Class 5A titlist Van Buren won 4-2.