Van Buren faces Jonesboro for the baseball state title

George "Clay" Mitchell
Fort Smith Times Record

Van Buren returns to the state title game for only the second time in the school's history as the Pointers face Jonesboro for the Class 5A baseball finals on Thursday at 1 p.m. at the Benton Schools Athletic Complex. 

"We're happy to be playing and going for a state championship, the guys are excited and looking forward to it," coach Luke Weatherford, in his first season as Van Buren's head coach. "Sometimes you get to the end of the year and it drags a little bit and kind of get tired of the routine but these guys have kept it fresh and upbeat."

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The Hurricanes (27-5) bring Josh Hyneman, who committed to the Arkansas last summer, along with Cross Jumper (Tennessee), Sawyer Bentley (Arkansas State) and Jake Henry Williams (Connors State).

"They're a really talented team and have good upperclassmen. We're looking forward to a really good game," Weatherford said. "As good as Jonesboro is I feel like we're prepared."

Van Buren faced all of its former 6A West foes this season during nonconference play and finished 7-3, defeating Rogers and Har-Ber - who are playing for the 6A title later on Thursday.

Last year during the PBR (Prep Baseball Report) Tournament in Little Rock, Van Buren defeated Jonesboro 1-0 before COVID closed the remainder of the season. Connor Johnson (12-0), who is playing for the University of Central Arkansas next season, said it was the best game of his high school career.

"Their hitters have gotten better, and they've seen a lot of good pitchers this year. So, it'll be a lot different this time," Johnson said.

During that game, he faced 23 batters with one walk, a hit, and 11 strikeouts. 

Van Buren isn't without its own college-bound players with Tanner Callahan (Connors State), Sammy Seeger (University of Arkansas-Fort Smith) and Luke Hughes (Carl Albert State). The team had 25 hits over three postseason games.

"We just need to keep it simple and play the team that we are and don't be something we're not," said Haden Roark, the team's leadoff hitter with a .374 batting average. "If we hit the ball as we did in the tournament and pitch as we have been. We also got the Dawg Pound. The fans brought a lot of energy to the game and they're going to bring it again. It helps when the game is close."

Van Buren had some close games this season and came out ahead, including trailing Marion in the second round of the playoffs 3-0 after three innings. Van Buren won 6-4.

"We knew we could score. We've played from behind before," Seeger said. "Devin (Gattis) got out there and put up a zero in the fourth inning, and we could feel the momentum shift."

Johnson is the likely starter Thursday and was the starter for both the first and third games of the playoffs. He pitched 10 1/3 innings and struck out 22 of 38. Van Buren's catcher, Callahan, said that Johnson keeps it easy for him.

"I just keep everyone in check and calm but I don't have to warry about that with Connor, he usually is," Callahan said. "All I have to do is just help him out the best I can. Get him some strikes and keep the ball in front of me."