The road to Baum Stadium and the state championship in Fayetteville is finally complete for the Sheridan Yellowjackets (32-5,12-0) and head coach Michael Moore. In the 6A state semifinals, the No. 3 seed Yellowjackets edged the No. 1 seed Greenwood Bulldogs (26-7,8-0) by a final of 1-0.
Throughout the year, the Yellowjackets have been regarded as one of the best teams in the state. However, Greenwood is known for their toughness, and they have a talent-filled roster that Sheridan knew would present a challenge.
In the midst of that roster is their right-handed pitcher Connor Noland, who is committed to the Arkansas Razorbacks as a two-sport athlete. On this day, Noland would get out-dueled by Sheridan's Tyler Cleveland, who showed plenty of poise and moxie.
With two high-level pitchers on the mound, hits came few and far between for both offenses. After Sheridan's Chance Wallingsford led the game off with a base hit, neither team would allow a hit until the third inning.
Things got dicey for the Yellowjackets in the bottom of the third after Cleveland gave up his only hit of the game to Ryan Daggs for a single. Following that single, Cleveland walked a batter, then hit another to load the bases for Greenwood with zero outs.
"I don't know if he was trying to pitch to fine or work them too much," Moore said. "They've got good hitters in the seven, eight and nine holes. Obviously they're batting seven, eight, nine, and if that was their one, two, and three things might have been a little different."
Moore came from the dugout to have a word with his pitcher on the mound, and from that point on Cleveland was lights out. Not only did Cleveland get out of a tough spot leaving three on for the Bulldogs, he also went on to retire Greenwood's next 15 batters.
"After I came out and talked with him it's like he went to another level for the rest of the game," Moore said.
From the bottom of the fourth through the bottom of the sixth, neither team allowed a runner on base. Heading into the final inning the score was knotted at 0-0, and that's when Sheridan found success against Noland.
Sheridan's Hunter Hicks went 2/3 for the game, and his base hit in the top of the seventh put them in a good position. David Rainwater followed Hicks with a base hit of his own to put two Yellowjacket runners on with no outs. Next up was David Vilches, who connected for an RBI double that dropped in right-field to score Hicks and give the Yellowjackets the first run of the game.
"If you throw Hunter a fast ball he can hit it anywhere on the field," Moore said. "Usually if his bat doesn't miss he hits the ball hard. He set the table, got us on, and David came up and lined one out there as well. Then Vilches just came up and got it done."
The Bulldogs had a chance to tie or walk off in the bottom of the seventh, but Tyler Cleveland was simply in the zone. Cleveland retired the first three batters he faced in the seventh to secure the win for Sheridan, sending them to the 6A state championship game.
Cleveland recorded the win by throwing a one-hitter, accounting for seven strikeouts. His counterpart, Noland, finished with six strikeouts while giving up five hits and the lone earned run.
Sheridan now has to do it one more time to bring home the 6A state title. The title game will be played at 10 a.m. on Saturday in Fayetteville at Baum Stadium. Sheridan will play the winner of the other semifinal game between Jonesboro and Benton.
"Well that's what you start out playing for, is to go to Baum," Moore said. "We have it on the back of our shirts and we wear it everyday. We touch a sign that says that's where we're trying to go everyday. It means a lot because we've had a bull's-eye on us all season as everybody thought we were one of the best. We've seen everyone's best effort, their best game, and to be able to go to Baum in spite of all that is just a tribute to how good these guys are."