MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Sports

May 10, 2012

Change of pace: Hornets shift from power to small-ball in playoff run

It’s easy to overlook.

For all of the times Hilldale crossed the plate with this past weekend at the Class 4A regional tournament, none came in after going yard.

In those 38 runs, the Hornets didn’t hit one home run.

Coach Darren Riddle’s squad didn’t need any of them in advancing to the state tournament that begins today at Shawnee. The Hornets face Byng at 4 p.m. in the state quarterfinals.

While home runs have been the Hornets’ bread and butter in the past, they thrive this season by playing small ball. That means they rely on bunting, try to take an extra base or anything that puts pressure on the opposing team’s defense.

“I think every coach would like to sit back and wait for a three-run home run,” Riddle said. “But in today’s game and with today’s bats (and the smaller sweet spot), that’s not going to happen. Let’s say we have guys on first and second base with one out or no outs, that’s an obvious bunt situation.

“Playing small ball isn’t something we overemphasize such as, ‘Gosh, we’ve got to do this. But we do work on it. If we get a bunt down, the other team may make a good throw to get us out. But the next time we get the ball down, that guy on defense may rush the throw a little bit.”

Small ball is so much of what the Hornets have done, it’s part of their daily practice routine.

“We’ve gotten a lot better at what we’re doing,” outfielder Miles Jackson said. “It’s worked out well for us.”

Jackson, who bats second, has made Hilldale’s small ball succeed with his speed. He’s put the pressure on the defense with his team-leading 14 bases. He also 12 walks, five triples and on-base percentage of .440.

"If a player can get on and run the bases, that adds to the pressure. I run as hard as I can to get on base," he said. "Then, I do what I'm supposed to do as much as I can. If the ball is hit to the outfield, I'm thinking about getting to third base. Putting on that pressure has worked for us."

Just ask Fort Gibson.

Hilldale scored 11 runs in one inning en route to winning the regional and eliminating the Tigers. The Hornets kept up the pressure — and the ball in play — by not striking out once in the 14-2 run-rule victory.

“They were a lot better at it than I thought,” Fort Gibson coach Randy Smith said. “In the past, they used to knock balls all over the park. There were guys that I didn’t think hit it very well, but they were able to move the ball around until the big guys came to the plate. They took advantage of taking the extra base against us.”

But it’s not one or two players doing this for the Hornets. The entire lineup has done it this season.

“We played in a big park (in Okmulgee) for regionals and we were getting singles and doubles,” Hunter Harrison, the Hornets’ lead-off batter, said. “Colby (Mullens), Matt (Bargsten) and Bryatt (Alexander) picked us in the bottom of the lineup. We’re finding ways for all of our guys to get hits and that’s meant a lot of success for us.”

Hilldale hopes the success continues in the state tournament. The Hornets, ranked No. 11 in the final Okrankings.com poll, bring a 24-7 record into today’s game against the No. 2 Pirates (29-3).

“Everybody on this team is a tough out,” senior catcher Jarrard Poteete, who bats third, said. “That’s going to make us tough going into the state tournament.”

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