The most accurate prophetic analysis of the Class 5A state baseball tournament came from Greenbrier coach Tye Glover, whose Panthers fell just short of the championship game.
Greenbrier had just put on an impressive effort in run-ruling 5A Central champ Sylvan Hills, 11-1, in the semifinals. A surging Vilonia team, seemingly peaking at the right time, was to play a semifinal later Friday but was extended into Saturday because of rain.
"Vilonia is a good baseball team, solid," Glover said after the Sylvan Hills victory, n0ting the Eagles beat the Panthers in two of three games this season, including the conference championship. "They are playing as well as anybody. They are well-coached. They are a very, very, very dangerous team. They pitch it well. They field it well. They’ve got good athletes at the plate. They are as solid as anybody we’ve played. I really expect to see them in the championship game. I’m not saying we’ll be there, but I think they will."
In the quarterfinals Saturday, Vilonia’s Zakery Whitis hit a three-run, walkoff home run in the bottom of the eighth to give the Eagles a 10-7 victory over White Hall. Luke Gordon’s walkoff single in the bottom of the eighth Monday at the Sherwood Sports Complex gave Vilonia an 7-6, come-from-behind victory over Little Rock Christian in the semifinals.
The Eagles, who have flown consistently below the radar this season, will now play for the Centennial Bank 5A state title at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at the University of Arkansas’ Baum Stadium against Magnolia, which ousted Greenbrier, 5-4, in the other semifinal.
"Our kids never one time believe we are out of a game right now," said Vilonia coach Brad Wallace.
He pinpointed that a then-struggling team found its wings and turned the season around on April 6.
"We shifted and changed what we do at practice, how we treat our time together and these guys have not doubted themselves ever since," Wallace said. "We got in our practice faster. We organized our practices differently and the kids bought in. We actually cut some time out for them, let them get some rest and they haven’t quit since then."
Wallace wants his team to play with reckless abandon, which allowed them to overcome five errors against Little Rock Christian. Nick Howard’s steal of home that brought the Eagles within 5-4 (after trailing 5-1) in the fifth changed the psychological complexion of the game against the Warriors.
"Nick did it on his own (stealing home)," Wallace said. "The guys play with reckless abandon and believe in what they are gonna do. He (Howard) is a winner that a lot of people are missing out on. He going to play baseball at Oklahoma Wesleyan. He’s one of a lot of guys people are missing out on. The thing is, it’s been a different guy every game."
Whitis, who hit the walkoff homer against White Hall, couldn’t play in Thursday’s first-round game against Nettleton because of sickness.
"He wasn’t even dressed out," Wallace said. "We called on a new kid (Devin James) … outstanding job, unbelievable job. Zak Whitis coming took advantage of coming off sickness the next game. Caden Raeburn, who hadn’t been in the lineup the whole tournament, steps in against Little Rock Christuab and gets two hits.
"My little sawed-off center fielder (Reed Saddler) comes in so my pitcher (Chris Bass) came come in in relief and catches big balls in the gap. "
In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
"I can’t list enough," Wallace said. "We all believe and all are prepared. I can’t list enough players out here who played a role in what we do."
The praise extended to the coaching staff and pitching coach Justin Moore.
"We have a lot of guys ready to go on the mound," Wallace said. "One kid (Cory Wilson) who couldn’t throw today (pitch count) did an outstanding job in two games. He came in the other night and shut White Hall down. Cody Mitchell (who reliever starter Nick Normsn in the first0 threw two 100-pitch ballgames in the state tournament and we had him down to throw 65 pitches today if we had to. That was to be our max. He just caught fire today with his heart is and just kept going. And I would be willing to bet his last pitch was just as fast as his first."
Norman the starter was relieved after throwing 17 balls in his first 19 pitches.
"He wants to be out there but he also wants to do what is best for us," Wallace said.
He pointed to a postgame celebration, highlighted by hugs, smiles and photos.
"We have a motto that we call ‘what’s the prize?’" he said. "This is the prize right here. Everyone is gonna say it’s walkoff victories and all that stuff. But it’s time spent with people of common interest.
"After the walkoff victory over White Hall, Chris Bass, our center fielder comes in and hugs me so tight and says, ‘Coach, we get one more day.’ We just enough that day together. That’s what it’s all about. Whatever else happens, happens."