High School : : General
Thursday, February 14, 2019

Har-Ber builds winning tradition

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Blake Adams (courtesy Har-Ber HS Baseball)

2019 Perfect Game High School Preview Index

The spring of 2018 marked only the 13th season that athletes at Har-Ber High School in Springdale, Ark., have been slipping on the Wildcats’ baseball uniform and going out and trying to show anyone who was interested that they could compete at an Arkansas Activities Association (AAA) state championship level.

It only took 13 years to deliver the evidence that stated, in so many words, “Yes we can!”. With a roster dominated by a talented senior class, the 2018 Wildcats rolled into the AAA Class 7A state championship game at the University of Arkansas’ Baum Stadium for a second straight season and made the short drive home with the championship trophy, the first in school history.

With the start of the 2019 season upon them, this year’s HVHS players are as determined as ever to show that back-to-back trips to the state finals – and four straight visits to the state semifinals – weren’t a fluke. In fact, they’re starting to look at those results as a tradition, and with that sort of outlook and steadfastness, they’re not backing away from whatever expectations might be out there..

“Everyone’s main goal is to make it to the state championship (game) and win,” senior infielder Kirby Jenkins told Perfect Game during a telephone conversation this week. “Last year we had a lot of seniors … so really what we’ve been working on is just rebuilding that main core of the (roster) and I think we’ve done a good job of that.

“Really, we just want to go out there and play our best with a bunch of new guys on the field; just try to play as a team and win.”

Har-Ber – named for Springdale-area industrialists Harvey and Bernice Jones – is not flying under the national radar. When the Wildcats open the 2019 season on Feb. 25 they’ll do so as the No, 22 team in the PG High School Preseason National Top 50 rankings and as the No. 6 squad in the PGHS Southeast Region (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee).

Those rankings represent quite an acknowledgement for a relatively new program from Arkansas that has been grouped in the same region with traditional national powers from Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.

But with an overall record of 94-36 after four seasons under the direction of head coach Ron  Bradley, no one should be surprised that Har-Ben has found its well-deserved position of respect on the national map.

“Being from the little town of Springdale, Arkansas, our baseball program … has never been talked about or ranked nationally,” top 2019 right-hander/outfield prospect Blake Adams told PG. “So for our guys to be able to see that, I think that’s given them more confidence that we can go out this year and really do something special, just like last year.”

There are at least five seniors on this year’s roster who were key contributors on last year’s championship team as juniors: Adams; the left-side infielder Jenkins; right-handers Landon McAllister and Jameson Clardy, and outfielder Clay Burtrum.

Adams is an elite talent, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound Arkansas signee with a 93 mph fastball who PG ranks as the No. 85 overall prospect (No. 1 Arkansas) in the class of 2019. He was 7-2 with a 2.05 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 58 innings pitched, and also hit .411 (37-for-90) with nine doubles, eight home runs and 42 RBI last season.

Jenkins is a Saint Louis University signee, McAllister (7-0, 0.98 ERA) has signed with Connors State College and Clardy with Hendrix College.

These are guys who know what it’s like to play for and win a state championship; they have also felt the sting of losing a state championship game. Either way, the experience is priceless. The AAA state championship games are played at the Razorbacks’ Baum Stadium in Fayetteville, and the atmosphere inside the ballpark rivals any in the country.

“We lost that heart-breaker (in 2017) and that’s something you don’t forget,” Bradley said. “Fortunately, we had the opportunity to get back and these seniors were able to experience really what it’s like to win it all. And there is definitely a difference in the way you feel about yourself winning the championship versus getting beat in the championship.”

 

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THE WILDCATS RODE ONE OF THE DEEPEST AND MOST TALENTED
pitching staffs in the state of Arkansas to last year’s state championship with departed seniors Blake Benson (8-0, 1.61 ERA, 60 Ks, 60 IP), Treshon Paschal 6-1, 2.00, , 51, 42), Leighton Alexander and Jack Lisle leading the way. Bradley is quick to credit his pitching coach, Dustin Helmkamp, for his pitchers’ successes.“

Our program is built around pitching, and Dustin Helmkamp has done an outstanding job with our guys,” he said. “Blake Adams has got a chance to go in the top rounds in the draft and Landon McAllister is another returner for us. We know that we have a foundation set. If you have pitching you have an opportunity to win at a high level; if you don’t you’re just playing for fun.”

When Adams was elevated to the varsity as a freshman in 2016, the Wildcats were coming off a 22-win season and an appearance in the state semifinals, and hopes were high. It was an athletic team and Adams knew he was going to have to work extremely hard if he hoped to contribute. He didn’t pitch at all that year but did play some outfield, and Har-Ber made a second straight trip to the state semis.

It was a great experience for a 15-year-old and Adams was anxiously looking forward to his sophomore year when a few more of his classmates would join on him varsity. That was the 2017 season that ended with a 22-10 record after the loss in the championship game.

“In my opinion, we over-achieved that year,” Adams said. “We had so much chemistry my sophomore year and we ended up losing 10 games, but we did really good in conference, got the bye (in the playoffs’ first round) and then made it to the finals.”

Seven every-day players from that state runner-up team returned for the 2018 season and Adams said they were playing with a little bit of a chip on their collective shoulders – they really wanted a championship ring.

And, with the then-junior Adams dealing from the mound, they got fitted for those rings with a decisive 6-0 victory over Conway in the championship game; Adams threw a complete-game four-hitter, striking out nine and walking one.

“Coming out junior year, it was just magical from the get-go; that’s one of the best teams I’ve ever played on,” he said. “We just had it all.”

Adams made special mention of Blaze Brothers and Mac McCroskey – a pair of middle-infielders who are now teammates at Cowley College in Arkansas City, Kan. – who Adams said were just really fun to watch play and play with. He repeated that the 2018 season was “magical” mostly because of the bond he shared with last year’s seniors.

“Ending their high school career that way was something very special,” he said. “It was probably the best experience I’ve had in baseball so far.”

Getting back to a third straight state championship game this season – Har-Ber has been reclassified as a 6A school, a move done mostly for football reasons, Bradley said – won’t be easy, of course. That’s just not the way life works unless you’re the New England Patriots.

The state of Arkansas is filled with amazing prep talent and a lot of those guys are playing for schools that are in the 6A West Baseball League, where Har-Ber sets up camp.

“Every conference game is tough because there’s always those few really good players along with the players that are just good,” Jenkins said. “You never go into a game thinking that you’re going to win easily; you’ve got to play your best every game. I think that’s what makes us a better team, playing better competition day-in and day-out. “

A lot of the state’s highest-ranked prospects are now playing their travel ball with Little Rock-based Sticks Baseball Academy – 2019s like No. 193 left-hander William Morris (Cabot HS), No. 331 catcher Cason Tollett (Little Rock Christian Academy), top-500 righty Peyton Pallette (Benton HS), top-500 shortstop Peyton Holt (Greenwood HS) and top-500 right-hander Zane Ryne Neves (Jonesboro HS) – so everyone seems to know everyone else.

Adams and Jenkins have also played with Sticks, and the seniors listed above – like Adams and with the exception of Holt – have signed with the Razorbacks.

“I feel like Arkansas (high school) baseball has really improved in the last 10 or 15 years,” Bradley noted. “A lot of kids are getting recruited by colleges right here out of this area.”

The key to the success that Har-Ber has experienced over the last four years, Bradley explained, was establishing a very positive culture around the program right from the outset. There is a process the players work through within the program that involves four teams: freshman, sophomore, junior varsity and varsity.

That breakdown helps lead to steady player development, and many of them have already been blessed with natural abilities. And, as Bradley pointed out with a chuckle, “Good players make good coaches.”

“We’ve been very fortunate to have good players in our program,” he continued. “I really feel like the difference in most great programs is the chemistry and the culture that you have within your program. I have the same coaching staff that I’ve had for the last five years and the continuity and the process that our young men go through has been very consistent. The fun of it is building it, the hard part is maintaining it.”

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RON BRADLEY SPENT THE EARLY YEARS OF HIS COACHING CAREER AT OKLAHOMA
high schools and led Claremont and Jenks to state championships; he also coached West Fork (Ark.) to an Arkansas state title. In 2005, he left the prep ranks to help start the baseball program at Rogers State University in Claremore, and ultimately took the Hillcats to three straight NAIA World Series from 2011-13.

When the Har-Ber job opened, Bradley, who was born and raised in Northwest Arkansas, decided to return home. The Wildcats won 22 games and advanced to the AAA Class 7A state tournament semifinals in his first season in 2015.

He told PG that he loved the nine years he spent at Rogers State, building the program from a club team into a national championship contender after just five seasons. But in 2014 the university decided to move its athletic programs from NAIA to NCAA Division-II, which meant there would be a three-year period during which its teams would be ineligible for postseason play.

“It was just a good time for me to get out and not sit through the probationary period and start all over,” Bradley said. “Har-Ber is a very nice community and the top of the chain in Arkansas as far as athletics, so it was just a good fit. … I miss the college atmosphere but also I’ve really enjoyed the mentorship and the preparation as far as developing these high school players.”

The Wildcats returned to the state semifinals in 2016 and got back there again in 2017, this time picking up a win and advancing to the AAA 7A state championship game for the second time in school history (2008); they lost to Cabot, 2-1.

Now, it was a go-time, and with Adams and that solid core of seniors, the Wildcats won the state championship.

“I think that’s where you’re legacy comes in, where kids feel like they’re living up to their reputation,” Bradley said. “Along with that, each class feels pressure to maintain that level. We’ve got a good club going into this year but it takes a lot of breaks and a lot of great things (need) to happen and winning some games that you probably shouldn’t.”

There isn’t a single game on the Har-Ber’s schedule this season that the players won’t feel like they deserved to win. Adams, the veteran of two state championship games – one up, one down – realizes there are a lot of first-year varsity guys on the roster but has also become intimately familiar with their work ethic.

Bradley, according to Adams, has told the team repeatedly they don’t need to worry about what happened last year because this isn’t last year and it’s a whole new team. Right now, in mid-February, Bradley described what he called a “revolving door” as far as trying to find a lineup everyone is comfortable and confident with on a consistent bases.

There is going to be a different focus and the team is going to play a little differently than a year ago. The competition between the players, Bradley said, is going to be a lot of fun to watch early in the year with so many players vying for every-day playing time.

“We’re just trying to fill in the pieces before the season right now, because we’ve got a lot of young talent and there are a lot of guys fighting for these positions that opened up,” the senior Adams said. “We’ll see who are going to be the nine guys that will help us get back to Baum Stadium and play for the state championship and do it again for us.”

The senior Jenkins revealed that once Har-Ber HS opened its doors in 2005, he became determined to make sure it ended up being his high school of choice. As far back as he can remember, he always wanted to wear the Har-Ber Wildcats’ uniform.

This season is especially bittersweet for the seniors, of course. They want to go out winners but there will be constant reminders that his is their last go-around as high school players.

So, what to do now? Enjoy it as much as possible, of course. And so, what’s the general consensus on receiving this high national ranking from PG? Does it really change anything?

“I’ve always said to myself that rankings don’t matter, don’t worry about the rankings because that’s just somebody else’s opinion, but it’s also good,” Jenkins said. “It’s good to be ranked high; I feel like it gives the team more confidence. Maybe more people will come out and watch just because they know that you’re good and you’re playing well.”

His coach agreed:

“It’s rewarding for any team to be ranked nationally; it’s something that kids never forget,” Bradley said. “The preseason is always a little bit of hype and when you’re carrying your flag and your state on a national level, it brings a lot of pride to your school and your program.

“Our feeling is that you have to get better every day and you can’t look at the big picture too early,” he concluded. “You just have to put yourself in a position where at the end of the year you have an opportunity to be in the big picture.”



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