PREP SOFTBALL: Benton, Houston top GCT for third straight crown

Benton’s Alyssa Houston (14) throws a pitch during the Class 5A State Championship Saturday May 20, 2023, at Farris Field, in Conway. More photos at (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Justin Cunningham)
Benton’s Alyssa Houston (14) throws a pitch during the Class 5A State Championship Saturday May 20, 2023, at Farris Field, in Conway. More photos at (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Justin Cunningham)

CONWAY -- The Benton Lady Panthers needed just 91 minutes to solidify their place in Arkansas high school softball lore.

Benton won their third straight state championship, rapping out hits in every inning and following the lead of senior pitcher Alyssa Houston one last time to a 7-0 win over Greene County Tech on Saturday afternoon at Farris Field in the Class 5A championship game.

Benton (29-4) became the ninth school in the state to win three straight championships in winning the school's sixth softball title.

"We're so thankful to get the opportunity to be able to do the three-peat," Benton Coach Heidi Cox said. "We're so exciting to be able to put the icing on the cake."

The championship was different than the previous two, which featured perfect 31-0 marks in 2021 and 32-0 last season. The Lady Panthers won their first three games this season before losing to Class 6A champion Bryant 2-0 to snap a 67-game winning streak, dating to the 2020 covid-19 pandemic season that was cancelled shortly after the start.

"That first loss of the season kind of let them breathe," Cox said. "It just wasn't realistic. It wasn't something we were shooting for. They took a breath, the monkey is off their back, and we could have a great time and have fun."

Six seniors were in the starting lineup Saturday who finished with three championships.

"It's been a tremendous run for this senior class to do something that hasn't been done by us," Cox said. "It's been a fun run with those seniors that got cut by covid year. They had some shoes to fill and had something to prove."

On Saturday, senior second baseman Addison Davis reached on an infield single to open the home half of the first inning for Benton.

Alyssa Houston followed with a ringing double to deep left, sending Davis to third.

Lydia Bethards singled home Davis, and after an out, Cameron Culclager singled home courtesy runner Addisyn Rasburry. Bethards put Benton up 3-0 when she hurried home after a foul pop was caught by diving first baseman Marley Speer for a 30-foot sacrifice fly.

The 3-0 lead was more than enough for Houston.

"That was wonderful," Houston said. "I've always said I can do three runs. One-run games, a hit can happen. They did hit me, but my team always has me. Having three runs is a safe cushion."

Houston, who is headed to play at Stanford, entered the game with a 0.54 earned-run average.

"We knew if we could get her one or two runs to build more confidence on the mound which she already had already to let her relax and do what she does," Cox said.

Houston threw 63 of her 84 pitches for strikes and struck out 12. She threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 23 batters she faced, which was just two batters over the minimum.

Houston entered the game with five straight no-hitters and allowed three singles Saturday. After retiring the first eight batters, shortstop Brie Sage singled softly to right for Greene County Tech (25-7) with two outs in the third inning that ended Houston's 37-inning no-hit streak. Zoie Reynolds led off the fourth with a ground-ball single, but was erased on a double-play pop up. The left-handed Reynolds also had the third hit, slapping a single to left to lead off the seventh.

Bethards drove in four runs for Benton, including three after Houston was walked intentionally in the second and fourth innings.

Bethards' double scored courtesy runner Azzy Morrow, who was running after Violet Morrow led off the second inning with a single. With two outs, Houston was walked and Bethards answered.

"I'm just thinking that I have to get a good hit," Bethards said. "Moving her along is the main goal. I'm here for a reason. I was seeing the ball really well coming out of her hand."

In the fourth, she doubled again to score two more after Houston was again walked intentionally for a 6-0 lead.

Culclager singled home Emily Reed, who had tripled to deep center, for the final run and cap a 4-for-4 day with three bunt singles and an infield single.

"We knew what Benton brings, we knew how good they were, we knew it was going to be an uphill battle," Greene County Tech Coach David Reynolds said. "We knew not a lot of people gave us even a slimmer of a chance. Our kids competed. The first inning was really, really big."

The win culminated a dominating three-year career for Houston, who slugged a home run and threw the final inning in the 2021 state championship game against Greenwood, and closed out last year's championship game against Greene County Tech with four hitless innings.

"I've played with a lot of these people since I was four-years-old," Houston said. "It's wonderful to be able to finish with them for our high school career and end the way we did."