How Van Buren pitcher Connor Johnson won another duel to help get Pointers into 5A finals

Leland Barclay
Special to the Times Record

JONESBORO - State baseball tournaments have become strategic with three games in three days and a strict pitch count.

That set up a rare semifinal pitching duel between staff aces for Van Buren and Greenwood on Saturday afternoon.

Van Buren’s Connor Johnson and Greenwood’s Landry Jurecka went toe to toe again, with Johnson’s Pointers winning, 6-2, at Jonesboro’s Annie Camp Junior High Field in the Class 5A semifinals.

The Pointers (26-7) will play Jonesboro (31-5) in the state championship game at Benton. Game date and time will be announced by the Arkansas Activities Association on Monday morning.

The championship games begin Thursday and will be played around Van Buren’s graduation, which is Friday, and Jonesboro’s graduation, which is Saturday.

Van Buren is making its first state championship game appearance since 2010, when Pointer coach Luke Weatherford was a first-year assistant under David Loyd, who retired last year with Weatherford being elevated to head coach.

“It’s kind of gone full circle for me,” Weatherford said. “I’m so proud of our guys. We knew we had a great team coming back and that we’d have a shot.”

Johnson and Jurecka started, and won, their first-round games on Thursday; Johnson over Lake Hamilton, 7-2, and Jurecka over Sheridan. 11-3.

Both were stellar and left early with low pitch counts when their teams took early leads.

Johnson threw 60 pitches before Weatherford pulled him with an out in the fourth inning, and Jurecka threw 59 pitches before Greenwood coach Chad Mercado pulled him after four innings. That enabled both to pitch again on Saturday.

“That was the plan going in to pitch Connor 60 pitches, that way we’d have him for Saturday,” Weatherford said. “Then we saw Greenwood play Sheridan and take Jurecka out.

"I talked to Coach Mercado and he couldn’t believe we took him out with a 4-0 lead, and I told him he’s playing chess and I can’t play checkers. We had to match the moves there.”

In the first meeting of the two Division I pitchers in March, Johnson’s Pointers shut out Jurecka’s Bulldogs, 2-0, with Van Buren scoring both runs early.

“They were very similar games,” Weatherford said. “Both of those guys are great pitchers. Usually, if you’re going to get one of them you have to get to them before they get settled in.”

Saturday, Van Buren scored twice in the first inning on consecutive two-out singles by Johnson and Eli Gilreath.

More: Why Chance Eoff had a big week for Greenwood's baseball team.

More: Why Van Buren senior Tanner Callahan wants to win another championship.

More: How Sammy Seeger and his Van Buren teammates celebrated their 5A-West title.

That score stood up until the top of the sixth inning when Caden Brown tied the game for Greenwood (20-11) with a two-out two-run homer just inside the left-field foul pole after Chance Eoff had doubled to deep center.

“Obviously, that swing took a little wind out of the sails, but like I told our guys it’s one swing, it’s tie game and we’re the home team,” Weatherford said. “All we have to do is score a run and get three outs.”

Van Buren scored way more that in the home half of the sixth.

Jurecka, who is headed to Kansas State, left after five innings and 79 pitches, and Johnson walked to lead off the home half of the sixth inning on four pitches.

Gilreath and Presley Nichols followed with consecutive singles before courtesy runner Jaiden Henry scored on a wild pitch for the go-ahead run. Breckin Waters singled to score Gilreath, and Haden Roark’s double hugged the third-base line to score Waters and Malachi Henry for two insurance runs.

Johnson, who signed with the University of Central Arkansas, finished off the Bulldogs in the seventh on his 13th strikeout and two pop outs.

He was eager to work on a day’s rest after Thursday’s abbreviated outing.

“It was exciting,” Johnson said. “I wanted to throw again to give us a chance to go to the state championship.”

Johnson threw 101 pitches on Saturday with 67 for strikes. He struck out five in a row at one point, including the side in the second inning.

“I wasn’t as sharp today,” Johnson said. “I had a lot of adrenaline the first couple of innings. After that, I started to mellow down.

"I was starting to run out of gas, but I was going to gut it out and give it everything I had.”

Johnson was at 60 pitches after four innings, but got a boost in the fifth inning when he retired the side on just nine pitches.

“I was asking the whole game where am I at pitch-wise,” Johnson said. “I wanted to go the whole game.

"I knew they had the end of their lineup up, and I was just trying to throw strikes. I knew the defense was going to make plays.”

Sammy Seeger, Gilreath and Nichols each had two hits for the Pointers.