NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Amid the friendly, caring, graceful atmosphere that permeated Dickey-Stephens Park on Tuesday, two high school baseball teams that had been emotionally and physically on the ropes for about 10 days weren’t going for a knockout on the field.
The team from tornado-ravaged Vilonia (16-6) defeated their colleagues from tornado-ravaged Mayflower (23-3), 3-0, before 8,014 in a game at the AA Arkansas Travelers’ Dickey-Stephens Park that attracted 8,014 and raised hundreds of thousand dollars for disaster relief in each community. The Vilonia Eagles, strongly contending for a 5A-West championship, halted a 17-game winning streak by the Mayflower Eagles, which had just won the 3A-5 title.
“These players know each other, have played against each other, respect each other and we shook hands after the game, but both sides were out to win tonight,” said Vilonia coach Brad Wallace. “On the field, we’re competitors.”
“This game and the environment was great, but I’m not happy about losing,” said Mayflower coach Joe Allbritton, whose Eagles are 52-6 the last two year. “Playing this game was a release from what we’ve all been through, but we play to win and I know they (Vilonia) does, too.”
Players and coaches from both teams got to experience competing before a crowd about 100 times larger than they normally play and in a professional ballpark that is rated one of the best in the Minor Leagues.
Both teams got standing ovations from the entire crowd when they took the field. They began the evening with a joint prayer behind home plate.
“It was pretty exciting,” said Mayflower’s Michael Post. “I tried to block out the crowd but when there are 8,000 people clapping and cheering, it gets pretty loud. It was definitely a night to remember.”
“We were all pretty nervous,” said Mayflower’s Jordan Burns. “It helped that we got to take batting practice on the field and other pregame activities took our mind off what we were about to do. It was a fun night.”
“Adrenaline kicked in,” said Wallace. “Our shortstop, Drew Estes, came to me before the game and said, ‘I’m so nervous, so nervous.’ Then, he goes out in the first inning and makes a good play on a ground ball and you could see the confidence kick in. Despite the atmosphere and the stadium, he realized he could play here.
“Once the game started and you got into it, it’s still baseball.”
Four Vilonia pitchers, Cameron Wilkins, Haydon Weaver, Bradley Taylor and Chase Marshall, combined for a four-hit shutout against a normally high-powered Mayflower attack.
“Pitching is the strength of our team,” said Wallace.
Vilonia took the lead in the bottom of the first on after Jake Goodson crushed a ball to the gap in left center that rolled to the outfield wall and scored Scott Weaver. In the sixth, Taylor drove in two insurance runs when he singled in Nathan Taylor and Dylan Foster, who had singled.
Mayflower right fielder Mason Quick threw out a runner at the plate in the second and Burns, at shortstop, made a diving stop of a line drive and doubled up runner at first.
Mayflower put two runners on with no outs in the seventh but Marshall pitched out of the threat, striking out Justin Sewell to end the game.
Scott Weaver and Bradley Taylor had two hits each for Vilonia.
The teams played clean, errorless ball in the game that breezed by in an hour, 25 minutes.
“We play good defense and you can’t win 80 games over three years like Mayflower without being good defensively,” said Wallace. “Both teams played solid baseball,”
“I thought we adapted well to the atmosphere,” said Allbritton. “Vilonia is well-coached and a good team and I knew we would have to scratch out a run here and there to come out with a victory.”
Now, each team heads their separate ways in games that count more significantly on the record.
Vilonia will play its 5A-West county rival, Greenbrier, on Friday. If the Eagles win, it will mark their first conference baseball championship in 5A.
“All year, this team has wanted to do something different, something no team has done before,” Wallace said. “We’re playing our rival with a championship on the line. Even after this experience, I don’t think these players will have any trouble being motivated.”
Mayflower, a Class 3A state semifinalist last year, plays in regional play Friday.
“Our mottos is to hustle, focus and execute,” said Allbritton. “I thought our focus was good tonight but we’ll have to refocus and get back to winning.
“With the buildup to the game tonight and what’s ahead, it’s a stressful time. But I love stress.”