The Benton Tigers are in familiar position.
For the sixth straight year, the Tigers have reached the quarterfinals of the Class 4A baseball playoffs.
Benton (25-12), the No. 9 seed, begins a best-of-three series at No. 1 Breaux Bridge (30-3) on Friday at 6 p.m. Game two is scheduled for Saturday at 1. Game three, if necessary, will follow at 4.
Benton defeated No. 24 Pearl River 3-2 in the first round and then swept No. 8 Belle Chasse in the second. The Tigers won the first game 7-3 and then rallied four times to stay alive in a 9-8, 15-inning victory in the second.
Breaux Bridge defeated No. 32 George Washington Carver 10-0 in the first round and swept No. 16 North DeSoto 5-1 and 5-4 in eight innings in the second.
Benton shared the District 1-4A champion with North DeSoto. The Tigers split their two games with the Griffins, winning 2-1 and losing by the same score.
Benton was up and down the first half of the season. The Tigers put together a five-game winning streak but were only 12-8 through 20 games.
That might’ve made some wonder if Benton could duplicate its past success. But the Tigers went 10-4 over their last 14 games and won a share of their sixth straight district title at 10-2. Benton takes a seven-game winning streak into the Friday’s game.
“The kids have been consistent,” Benton coach J.D. Stephens said. “Through the losses, they’ve continued to work. To be honest with out, this has just been the year of guys stepping up.
“You’ve got a guy like J.T. Brice, who started early in the year and came out of the lineup. He came back against Haughton and was a spark for us.”
Stephens also likes the way his pitching staff has fought, citing Andrew McPherson and Kade Bailey, who has won two games in the playoffs.
“And you have someone like Keegan Rogers who threw four shutout innings against Belle Chasse (in relief in the 15-inning game),” Stephens said. “It’s just getting opportunities to play and being the spark we needed at the time.”
Turner Toms, Cameron Ross, Colbey Sharp, Brock Van Hoy and Landon Joyner have also contributed to the team’s success on the mound.
As Stephens said, Cade Scott, Cody Norris, Cole Horton, Peyton Long, Garrett Hable, Brennan Blaylock, Sam Simmons, Clint Lasiter, Tanner Timms and Brice have all come through at one time or another at the plate.
Scott had a walk-off double in the first-round victory over Pearl River. Hable ended the marathon second game against Belle Chasse with an RBI-double. Blaylock also had several clutch hits in the game. Simmons had a walk-off single in the victory over North DeSoto.
Benton is taking on a talented Breaux Bridge team that won the District 3-4A championship. Breaux Bridge, also the Tigers, has won 22 straight games.
“Breaux Bridge is well-coached, “ Stephens said “All their pitchers are in the strike zone. They have guys that aren’t necessarily overpowering but throw strikes.
“As far as offensively, they put a lot of pressure on you. It should be a competitive series. They’re going to fight and make you earn everything.”
With its six straight district titles and six consecutive quarterfinal appearances, Benton has had a remarkable run of success.
Stephens credits the dedicated players that have come through the program, including this year’s squad.
“We have talented kids year in and year out; that does help,” he said. “But their work ethic, that goes unnoticed. People show up to watch playoff games but they don’t show up earlier in the year when these guys are grinding it out through tough losses.
“And I guess that’s been the commonality through all these years. We have guys that show up ready to work every day, and they set high expectations for themselves and they work hard to get to it. “
“The thing I think that goes unnoticed sadly is how hard it is to get where we at. People have gotten to where they expect it. But that first round game against Pearl River wasn’t easy — grind it out and find ways to get it done.”
One thing the Tigers haven’t been able to do during the run is make it past the quarterfinals. Last year, Benton was the No. 1 seed but lost to eventual state champion Neville, the No. 8 seed, two games to one.
They’re hoping to knock the No. 1 seed out this year.
“Looking back, it’s been a great run,” Stephens said. “I’m proud of these guys, but, same as every other year, these guys have a goal and it’s not to get where we’re at. It’s to get to the next week. It’s easy to do it with the guys when they show up to work as hard as they do every day.”
— Russell Hedges, firstname.lastname@example.org