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Nate Olson: Weather delay helped 2016 Chicago Cubs, 2022 Benton Lady Panthers softball team just the same

Seventeen-hour delay helped dominant Lady Panthers make comeback in title game

BENTON – I’ve counted longtime Arkansas sportswriter Buck Ringgold as a friend since 1999, when we worked for the same newspaper chain in Northwest Arkansas.

My sportswriting career was reborn last August, and Buck joined SBLive Sports as a contributing writer in October covering Oklahoma. He was recently promoted in May to regional editor managing Oklahoma and Missouri. Buck loves softball so much, he asked to cover some of the Arkansas softball state championship games along with Kyle Sutherland, who with Jared Hawthorn have turned the state upside down with softball coverage this spring. 

Buck also graciously volunteered to cover some soccer state title games, too, and on Saturday night he was sitting at my kitchen table pounding away on a soccer story while a heaping helping of pork loin and the trimmings, which my wife Sheena had whipped up, were waiting on him.

Thanks to our friends at the Arkansas Activities Association and Arkansas PBS, the Class 5A softball title game between Benton and Greene County Tech played on my living room TV. As severe weather loomed, Buck and I discussed a delay scenario as heavily favored and nationally ranked Benton trailed GCT 2-1 in the middle innings.

After lightning finally moved into the area, the game was halted, and Buck and I immediately tried to speculate on when the game would be resumed because we both knew after examining the radar no more softball would be played Saturday night.

Ever the Chicago Cubs fan, my mind wandered to November of 2016 when my beloved Cubs were knotted with the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of the World Series. A rain delay following the ninth inning was the saving grace for the Cubs. It was reported Jason Heyward called the team into the visiting weight room for a pep talk. The result was an 8-7 Cubs win — their first World Series title since 1908.

Both Buck and I agreed this 17-hour delay would help Benton pull this game out somehow, even though when it resumed GCT had runners on first and second and just one out.

I texted Kyle and asked which Lady Panther was going to give the Heyward speech. Kyle, who has no formal journalism training but has become a solid writer and reporter, had his eyes on Benton junior pitcher Alyssa Houston. Houston, also a talented basketball player, didn’t look sharp according to Kyle. He saw the star hurler seek counsel from her parents and pitching coach in the stands. That was a keen observation and was setting wheels in motion for a Lady Panthers comeback.

The next day, after Houston shut down GCT, which had runners on first and second with one out, to get out of the fifth inning and held them scoreless the rest of the afternoon to preserve a 3-2 win, she revealed to Kyle the delay had a calming effect on her, and she was able to have that pow-wow with her inner circle and received some reassurance form her pitching coach. Then, a devotional on Sunday.

That’s the home cooking Buck and I were banking on when we both agreed the delay would help Benton. The Lady Panthers went home to their own beds and rested. The comforts of home and the divinity of Sunday worship for some was an easy reset button.

I wouldn’t say Benton was shaken Saturday night, but they weren’t themselves, and they were on the ropes after having never trailed that late in a game all season. Houston wasn’t sharp, and if GCT had strung together a few more hits, the Lady Panthers would have been in big trouble with three more at-bats remaining in the game.

“When we were down in the fifth inning, my stomach wasn’t in knots or anything, because these girls always produce,” Benton coach Heidi Cox said. “We outhit [Greene County Tech] 6-2, so I felt we were going to break through. But we came in refreshed. I credit the delay. We will take it.”

Would they have lost the game without the delay? It is hard to say, but let’s just say it would have taken some heroics to pull it out. Especially if GCT had scored any more runs.

So, we can all agree the delay helped spur the comeback. It might not have made a difference if this were a true neutral-site game, but when one team is playing on its own field and spending the night at home, they most certainly have the advantage over the other club who is two hours from home and spending a night in a hotel.

GCT had its chance to win the game, and that was Saturday night. That was it.

“I got to the office early [Sunday morning] and planned on being there by myself, and I heard them coming into the dressing room, and I heard laughter,” Cox said. “I went out on the balcony and saw them in the dugout, and they were cutting up and laughing. I was like, ‘Alright, they are OK.’”

Now, having said all of that, let’s give credit where it’s due, and I am going to do it in a major way. The Lady Panthers are riding a 63-game win streak and are the two-time defending Class 5A state champions.

Bryant football, and its four straight Class 6A state championships, and North Little Rock basketball and its No. 12 ranking in the SBLive/Sports Illustrated Power 25 and its two McDonald’s All-Americans in Nick Smith, Jr. and Kel’el Ware were the big stories this school year — and rightfully so.

But let us include the Lady Panthers in the mix as the most dominant team this school year. Benton took on all comers. They are not in the state’s largest class, but still they were the best team regardless of class this spring. They embarked on a challenging schedule and put it on more than a few teams. In the end, they were ranked No. 3 in the USA Today Top 25 national poll.

That is a feat that hasn’t been seen in Arkansas in quite some time, and aside from NLR’s national noise this winter, you’d have to go back to the 2005 Springdale football team, which was ranked No. 2 in the nation in at least one poll.

That’s how much of a juggernaut of a team Benton is — they compare very well with Mitch Mustain and Co. It’s about time folks recognize their rare greatness,

That greatness was on display Sunday, even if they used just a little bit of help from Mother Nature.