Van Buren claims first baseball championship by rolling past Jonesboro for Class 5A title

Leland Barclay
Special to the Times Record

BENTON - It was only fitting that Connor Johnson struck out the final batter he faced in his high school career on three pitches.

Johnson’s masterful pitching performance, along with a robust offensive outburst, carried Van Buren to their first state baseball championship with a resounding 12-1 win over Jonesboro at Benton’s Everett Field on Thursday afternoon for the Class 5A title.

Van Buren (27-7) last played in the state championship game in 2010 when the Pointers lost to Bryant in the state’s largest classification.

“We came into the game with a lot of confidence,” Van Buren coach Luke Weatherford said. “Once we scored a couple, and we’ve got Connor on the mound, we feel like he’s going to hold anybody face down. I think they felt that a little bit, too.”

Johnson gave up a line-drive single on the first pitch to Jonesboro’s leadoff hitter, Dawson Wagner.

“Connor didn’t really throw that ball hard,” senior catcher Tanner Callahan said. “It was his first pitch of the game.

"I told him he’s got to throw the ball hard. He just said, 'It will come.’ I was just nervous.”

Johnson retired the next 12 batterswith ease and finished with a four-hit complete game with no walks and seven strikeouts to finish one of the most impressive seasons in Arkansas high school baseball history.

“He’s 13-0 for a reason,” Weatherford said. “We talk all the time about how we’ve faced guys going to Kansas State, we’ve faced guys going to Arkansas and faced guys going to all these different schools. Deservedly so, they’re good pitchers, but he finds a way to beat them.

"He just wins. That’s a testament to who he is as a player and his character.”

Johnson needed just 88 pitches, and only six in the final inning.

“On short rest, my fastball wasn’t 100% , but I was locating it,” Johnson said. “My breaking ball wasn’t super good, but it was effective. Controlling my fastball was the biggest thing today.”

With an out in the second inning, third baseman Eli Gilreath belted a solo home run as Van Buren took a 1-0 lead.

“Eli ran into that ball early, and that got us going,” Weatherford said. “It got easier to add on as the game went on.”

More: Why Van Buren senior Tanner Callahan is eager to win another state championship.

More: How Haden Roark did his part in Van Buren's doubleheader sweep against Alma.

That early lead lifted Johnson as well.

“Whenever Eli hit that home run, that was a huge confidence boost,” Johnson said. “I knew we were going to put up some runs. They’re a really good hitting team so we needed all the runs we could get.”

Senior center fielder Haden Roark knocked in Easton Reichard, who led off the third inning with a walk and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Malachi Henry, for a 2-0 lead.

In the sixth inning, Van Buren tacked on four runs.

Presley Nichols and Breckin Waters ripped consecutive line-drive run-scoring singles for a 4-0 lead before Reichard followed with the biggest hit of the inning when the left-handed designated hitter scored two more with another line-drive single.

“I wasn’t really looking good early in that at-bat,” Reichard said. “I just got into a two-strike approach and got a fastball in on my hands and took it to right like I should.”

Jonesboro (31-6) touched Johnson for its only run in the sixth inning after Will Barre led off with a single.

“They were getting momentum and getting on Connor,” first baseman Sammy Seeger said. “I have a lot of confidence in our middle infield. They’ve done great this year.

"Off the bat, as soon as I caught it, I looked over at Connor, and he was screaming at the top of his lungs. That was a turning point.”

Seeger had two hits and scored a run in the top of the seventh, when Van Buren put the game away with six runs.

MORE: How Sammy Seeger and his Van Buren teammates celebrated winning the 5A-West title.

“We were on the bus when we pulled up today,” Seeger said. “I looked at Haden in the eyes and said ‘Man, this is real.’ I had that realization."

Roark finished his career with three hits and two RBIs.

“It was a first-pitch fastball,” Roark said. “The first at-bat, I took the first pitch. The second at-bat, I jumped on the first pitch. We’ve been working hard for this for sure, plenty of hours but you’ve just got to stay calm.”