The last time Smackover qualified for the state tournament was 2017.
If the Bucks are to end their four-year drought, they must get past a familiar foe.
For the third time in five years, Smackover and Fouke will collide at the 4-3A Regional Tournament with a berth in the state tournament on the line.
The Bucks (18-5) are the 8-3A’s No. 2 seed, while the Panthers (11-10) are the 7-3A’s No. 3 seed.
The schools will meet at Ashdown Thursday at 12:30 p.m.
The teams split the first two meetings in the regional with Smackover topping Fouke 14-1 back in 2017 before the Panthers rolled to a 21-0 win a year later.
The schools met at Fouke just before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the remainder of the 2020 season with the Bucks snapping a three-game losing streak in the series with a 4-2 victory.
“We’re really familiar with them,” said Smackover coach Josh Wesson. “Based on the history, we’ve played a lot in the past, so Smackover and Fouke is nothing new. This year’s bunch at Fouke, they’re well-coached, one through nine can swing it.”
Smackover has seen several of the state’s top pitchers this season, and they will see another one in Kayden Keller.
“He’s 6-3, about 200 pounds, throws mid-80s and has good breaking stuff,” Wesson said. “He’s their ace. He’s got a ton of strikeouts on the year. He throws hard, throws a good two-seam (fastball), he mixes it well. He’s going to be a challenge. He’s their guy.”
Wesson said Keller compares closest to Harmony Grove ace Brad Launius.
“He’s a hard thrower like (Parkers Chapel’s Trace) Shoup and Launius,” Wesson said. “He’s going to mix it well like Launius. That would probably be the closest comparison. We saw a good arm against Maumelle in the finals of the Bauxite Tournament. He was a hard thrower as well. He’s just a big kid. He has a big frame and he uses every bit of it. He’s a great pitcher. It’s going to be a challenge, but we’re ready for it.”
The Panthers also showed plenty of resolve in their district tournament game against Haskell Harmony Grove, rallying from 9-1 deficit to tie the game with an eight-run seventh before falling in extra innings.
“They’re going to fight to the last pitch,” Wesson said. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge.”
The Bucks enter the regional tournament having not played in nine days, and while there is a question of Smackover having gained some rust from being idle, Wesson said the Bucks have gotten plenty of work done in practices.
“They’ve showed a lot of focus in practice,” Wesson said. “We’ve done some intrasquad stuff, and we’ve gotten after it pretty good. I’ve seen it both ways. I’ve seen teams respond to having time off, and I’ve seen some teams that have guys that need to play every day. If you look back to the beginning of the year, we were in a stretch where we played six days out of seven on the road, so I’m not real worried about the rust because they’ve practiced so well.
“They’ve gotten after it. They know what’s ahead of them. A lot of these guys that returned from last year were pretty bummed out that their season got cut short because they felt like they were going to make a deep run. Now they know what’s ahead of them. They know we have to win that first one on Thursday to continue our season. I think they’re fired up for it. I think they’re ready.”
Should the Bucks prevail and qualify for the state tournament, Wesson said it would be a big accomplishment for his young team.
“It would be great,” Wesson said. “They would enjoy it. Smackover baseball has a very rich tradition. I fell in love with the place when I first got placed here for my internship to finish my college degree. I tell everybody all the time that I really didn’t know where Smackover, Arkansas was until I got placed here for my internship. I fell in love with it from Day One. It’s a baseball town. The community loves baseball.
“The kids grow up playing, and we want to get back to that point to where it’s kind of an understood thing that we’re going to get to the postseason and we’re going to get to state. That’s the tradition we want to get back to. Coach (Jeff) Burson did a great job of getting those guys going, and they were on the right track. I was pretty nervous coming in here because we replaced six starters this year, and you see a lot of freshmen, a lot of new faces, but I think they’re ready for the challenge. I think they want to win for the community and all of the people that support our program. It would really mean a lot to them.”
If the Bucks are to extend their season, pitching and defense will be critical, as will executing when they have baserunners.
“We have to continue to pitch like we’ve pitched all year,” Wesson said. “We have to continue to play defense like we’ve played defense all year and we have to find a way to execute and score runs. Our Achilles’ heel this year has kind of been offense. We’ve had great pitching performances all year, we’ve played great defense, but the bats have been kind of slow this year. We’re hoping everything comes together and we got hot at the right time.”