CONWAY — The Class 5A state baseball final lived up to its billing.
Little Rock Christian edged Valley View 4-3 in nine innings Saturday night at Bear Stadium. Cade Bowman’s single to center field on the game’s 263rd pitch gave the Warriors the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.
Until then, the Warriors (31-3) and Blazers (29-5) kept an overflow crowd and an Arkansas PBS television audience in suspense.
“I hate it for our kids. We made some good plays and I thought we had a chance for a couple of balls to get down,” Valley View coach Josh Allison said. “Their guys threw really well, our guys threw really well. It was a good baseball game. We just didn’t come out on the right side of it.”
As the Warriors celebrated their first state championship, the Blazers dealt with familiar heartache.
Valley View, which was playing in the finals for the third consecutive season, lost the Class 4A final last year to Harrison in 10 innings. Allison reminded his team of its success against a rugged schedule during a postgame talk in the dugout.
“We beat the 3A state champs. We beat the 4A state champs. We beat Christian already this year, we beat Bentonville, who was in the (6A) finals,” Allison said. “We beat a lot of teams, a lot of good teams. I told them that it’s unfortunate that it comes down to one game at very end and we didn’t win the one game, but it doesn’t detract from what we did throughout the year. We beat a lot of good teams and tonight we just didn’t win the last one.”
Little Rock Christian’s winning rally began with Harrison Engskov’s single to start the bottom of the ninth.
Pitching his third inning in relief, Valley View’s Slade Caldwell struck out the next batter, but Nate Gross singled to right field and the Warriors had runners on second and third after an outfield error. Will Coffman drew a full-count walk, loading the bases.
Facing an 0-2 count, Bowman hit a single to center field that fell just in front of a diving outfielder to score the game-ending run.
“I thought Slade threw outstanding today, but, again, front-foot hits, hitting balls out of the dirt, it just wasn’t our night when it came to that,” Allison said. “Our ball gets caught, their ball falls in front of us. That’s baseball.”
Both starting pitchers worked deep into the game.
Little Rock Christian’s Reece Tarini limited Valley View to three runs (one earned) and five hits while striking out 10 in 7 1/3 innings. Jackson Kircher pitched the last 1 2/3 innings in relief for the win.
Valley View’s Eli Crecelius yielded three runs and three hits while striking out five and walking four in six innings.
“If I was going to be nitpicking I’d love it if we had half the walks we had, but I thought he threw his butt off. He found a feel for his curveball about the second or third inning and I thought (Crecelius) gave us a chance to win the ballgame,” Allison said. “They run into an 0-2 fastball away for a triple to tie the game, but I thought he gave us the start we needed to win the ballgame and I knew he was going to do it.”
Caldwell pitched 2 1/3 innings in relief, allowing one run on four hits while striking out three and walking one.
A leadoff walk turned into a run in the first inning when Cade Collins hit a two-out single to give the Warriors a 1-0 lead. Caldwell, playing center field, limited the damage with running catches of two hard-hit balls.
Valley View broke through against Tarini in the fourth. Caldwell reached with one out when the first baseman bobbled his grounder and Owen Roach, who was 3-for-4, followed with a single.
Tarini struck out the next batter, but threw a wild pitch during a seven-pitch battle with Keaton Mathis and Caldwell scored the tying run. Mathis drew a walk and Tyler Hoskins belted an RBI single to score Roach for a 2-1 Valley View lead.
The Blazers added another run in the fifth to lead 3-1. Jayde Taylor led off with a single, moved to second on Drew Gartman’s bunt, took third on Roach’s single and scored on Lawson Ward’s sacrifice fly. The Warriors threw out Caldwell on attempted steal of home to end the inning.
Little Rock Christian tied the game in the bottom of the fifth. Gross led off with a single and scored when Coffman hit a triple an 0-2 pitch. Bowman’s sacrifice fly scored Bowman to tie the game.
The Warriors had a chance to take the lead with two outs in the sixth when, with runners on second and third, Gross lashed a drive to right-center field. Caldwell made another running catch to end the threat.
Neither team threatened in the seventh, sending the game to extra innings.
Valley View had a couple of runners in the eighth and ninth innings. Ward was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double for the third out of the eighth. Little Rock Christian also put a runner on base in the eighth, only to be picked off by Caldwell.
The Warriors made a sliding catch of Mathis’ leadoff liner to center field in the ninth, a play that loomed large when Kayson Becker hit a two-out infield single. Kircher retired the next batter to send his team to the dugout for the winning rally.
“We told our club that we think we’re the best club in the state. We beat all the teams that win state titles throughout the year,” Allison said. “Just one game at the very end doesn’t define that we’re not the best team.”