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Jackrabbits take down Panthers

by Erick Taylor | May 20, 2023 at 2:16 a.m.
Lonoke players celebrate after their Class 4A baseball championship victory over Ashdown on Friday afternoon at Bear Stadium in Conway. More photos at (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

CONWAY -- Lonoke's iron man showed nerves of steel when he needed to Friday to help deliver his team a long-awaited state title.

Steele Eaves dominated on the mound for six innings and withstood a furious surge from Ashdown in the seventh to spearhead the Jackrabbits to a 6-3 victory in the Class 4A baseball final in front of an overflow crowd at Bear Stadium on the University of Central Arkansas campus.

"All I can say is dreams do come true," Lonoke Coach Bryan Eagle said after being doused with ice and water following his team's 14th consecutive win. "Hard work, sacrifice, this is huge. These kids have bought in to everything we're doing, and just to watch how tough they are when the situations get real tight. ... It's amazing that they always respond."

Eagle's ace definitely answered when things got dicey late for the Jackrabbits.

Lonoke (29-2), which captured its first state championship since 1969, took a 6-0 lead into the final inning until the Panthers put together a spirited rally.

After being held to one hit over the first six innings, Ashdown (18-12) rattled off four hits and scored three times in the seventh inning. Grayson Porter opened the inning with a triple and scored on an error. Three batters later, Gunnar Altenbaumer doubled to deep right field, which allowed Braiden Walton to score and cut the Jackrabbits' lead to 6-2.

Caleb Blankenship would also connect for a two-out, run-scoring single to left field that got the Panthers within three runs, but Eaves would induce a force out at second to end the flurry and start a wild on-field celebration.

Eaves, a University of Arkansas commit, finished with 11 strikeouts and was named the game's Most Valuable Player.

"He's a big-time player. That's what he does," Eagle said of his standout pitcher. "Even there when it got tight at the end, I still wanted the ball in his hands because I know the competitor that he is. He always responds to the challenge, and he did there in that big spot, that big moment.

"I couldn't be more happy for him."

Lonoke also got a noteworthy outing from junior Jaxson Ingle, who went 3 for 4 with 5 RBI and 2 runs scored. Tripp Sullivan had a hit and scored a run as well for the Jackrabbits.

Blankenship had two hits to lead Ashdown, which lost a surplus of talent from last season's group that reached the Class 3A state final. Still, the Panthers rolled into Friday's final by winning 12 of their previous 13 games, including a 17-2 demolition of Brookland in the semifinals.

"We didn't start the season how we wanted to, but the kids didn't lose confidence," Ashdown Coach Austin Cross said. "They just kept fighting. They don't look at the score, hadn't looked at our record all year. If they were asked what our record was, they'd have no idea.

"But I'm just super proud of them. We gave a very, very impressive Lonoke team a run for their money. I think we had them a little nervous there in that last inning."

Eaves was responsible for the game's first run when his sacrifice fly enabled Ingle to score and put Lonoke up 1-0 in the bottom of the first. An error in the second inning resulted in another Jackrabbit run, but Ashdown had a chance to do some major damage in the fourth.

The Panthers loaded the bases following after a single from Blankenship and a pair of hit batters, but Eaves sidestepped danger by getting Walton to fly out and Mason Washington to ground out to end the inning.

Lonoke, however, cashed in on its next scoring opportunity in the bottom half of the inning when Ingle belted a two-run home run out the stadium in right field. The junior would add to his haul in the sixth with a two-run single.

"Toughness is what we pride ourselves on," Eagle said. "I'm just so proud for them. We work hard, and [a state title] was their goal. We thought we were the best team last year and didn't get it done. So this has been on our minds all year.

"But I'm so proud and happy to watch them make their dreams come true. They etched their names in the history books, and that's what we always talked about doing."

  photo  Steele Eaves struck out 11 batters in six innings for Lonoke on Friday afternoon against Ashdown at Bear Stadium in Conway. Eaves helped lead the Jackrabbits to a 6-3 win and the school’s first championship since 1969. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

 Gallery: Arkansas 4A State Baseball Championship

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