CONWAY -- Harding Academy made it 7 for 7 by rolling a pair of fives Saturday evening at Bear Stadium.
The Wildcats scored a quintet of runs in both the third and fourth innings and got another strong outing from pitcher Kade Smith to cruise past Rivercrest 10-0 in five innings in the Class 3A state baseball title game.
Kyler Hoover walked away with Most Valuable Player honors after a banner outing for Harding Academy (25-7), which won its third consecutive state title. What may be even more astonishing is the fact that the Wildcats have never lost in any of their seven championship-game appearances.
"What makes this one special is that it was this year," Harding Academy Coach Shane Fullerton said. "You work for what's going to happen at the end of this year. You start over every year, and we talked about it on the bus before we got out here. It doesn't matter how many times you've been here, it doesn't matter how many times you may be here in the future. You've got to be hungry.
"We don't want to be starving for anything because winning is not what the good Lord put us here for. We don't want to starve for it, we don't want to be full. We just want to be hungry [Saturday]."
The Wildcats played like a team that was famished. Hoover went 2 for 3 with 3 runs batted in and 2 runs scored. Kam Hoover and Brody Myers also had two hits, and Kade Smith, a University of Arkansas commit, allowed 2 hits and struck out 4 on 66 pitches for the Wildcats, who did have a hard time getting to Rivercrest pitcher Connor Vaughn for the first two innings.
The junior was perfect in the first and second innings and kept the hard-hitting Wildcats at arm's length, which was exactly what Rivercrest Coach Stephen Elrod was hoping would happen at the start.
The problem was that his team wasn't able to take complete advantage of it.
"We couldn't get the big hit to put a little pressure on [Harding Academy]," Elrod said. "We had opportunities, but that's baseball. Sometimes we were putting the ball in play, but with runners in scoring position or even on base, we never barreled it up.
"We were just hitting bloopers to the infield or bloopers to the outfield. We just never got that big one to score some runs."
The Colts, who were playing in their third-ever final, initially put two runners on base during the second inning but couldn't send any of them home after Smith struck out Ashton Cagle looking.
Rivercrest again threatened in the top of the third when Kevin Morris nailed two-out double to the center-field wall. But Smith forced Vaughn to ground out a few pitches later.
Harding Academy, on the other hand, finally got its offense cranked up in its ensuing at-bat.
The Wildcats sent nine batters to the plate, starting with an inning-opening single from Kam Hoover. Myers followed with a hit and Parker Hawks got on after taking a pitch to the top of his helmet. That loaded the bases and led directly to a two-run single from Kyler Hoover.
Fullerton's group was far from done, though. Levi Lang's sacrifice fly drove in Hawks and then made it 4-0 following Kyler Hoover's score on a wild pitch shortly after. Daniel Henley got in on the act, too, with a sacrifice fly before Vaughn got Kaynan Harris to fly out to end the inning.
"We call that big four offense," Fullerton said. "When we need a bunt, we bunt. We didn't get one, but then we got hit by the pitch. And one of the big things in our big four is to drive in a run when it's less than two outs.
"Part of that is a ground ball up the middle and a tag, and we had two of those. They were big runs. Levi Lang getting one of those, and Daniel Henley getting another one. ... just really, really good stuff.
A eerily similar situation unfolded for the Wildcats in the fifth when 10 players batted. Kam Hoover and Myers began with back-to-back hits, and both scored on consecutive run-scoring singles from Hawks and Kyler Hoover. Hawks later scored for the second time in the game on another wild pitch before Isaac Baker got in on the fun with a two-run single to give Harding Academy its 10-run cushion.
That bulge was more than enough for Smith, who was the MVP of the 2021 state final. He retired the final six batters to secure another trophy for the Wildcats.
"Just a great performance," Fullerton noted of Smith. "As the year's gone on, he's gotten more and more dominant. Just really put the ball in the zone."