Bryant has been a high school baseball powerhouse in Arkansas for several years and the Razorbacks are beginning to benefit from that dominance.
The Hornets captured their fourth Class 7A state title in seven years with a 5-0 win over Conway at Baum Stadium last Friday. They did so with the help of a pair of Arkansas baseball signees: Evan Lee and Zach Jackson.
While both have been recruited by the Razorbacks as pitchers, Lee made his presence felt at the plate, going 3 for 3 with three RBIs. His two-run home run in the fifth inning gave Bryant the five-run cushion it ended with.
“Conway threatened throughout the game, but they couldn’t push them in,” Bryant coach Kirk Bock said. “In the back of your mind, Conway came back in three games and went into extra innings to get to that point, so once Evan hit that two-run jack, it gave you a little bit of breathing room.”
The performance earned Lee the MVP award for the game. Only four days later, he was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for Arkansas. Lee finished the year 9-0 with 80 strikeouts, 16 walks and 18 hits allowed in 52 innings.
Bryant is familiar with the Gatorade award, as Trevor Ezell won it two years ago before becoming a freshman all-American at Southeast Missouri State. Before that, Travis Wood – who signed with Arkansas, but was drafted in the second round and went straight to the pros – won the award in 2004 and 2005.
“(Lee) is a guy that’s in control of his life right now, knows what he wants and works extremely hard to get there,” Bock said. “His baseball ability is going to take him a ways in life, but just the type of man he is, he’s going to be really successful with whatever he does.”
Also in the state championship game, Jackson fired a shutout, scattering six hits and one walk across seven innings while striking out three.
The outing lowered his ERA to 0.40, which was even better than Lee’s 0.54 ERA.
“Zach is always going to give you an opportunity to win,” Bock said. “He’s just a bulldog. He’s one of the most successful pitchers stat-wise we have.”
While both had microscopic ERAs, their arsenal of pitches is different.
Lee, a left-hander, is a strikeouts pitcher with a sinker, curveball and “really, really good” changeup, Bock said, while Jackson, a right-hander, is a contact pitcher with a sinker, slider, plus changeup and a fastball that can reach the upper 80s.
“Evan gets more swings and misses with his breaking ball than Zach does,” Bock said. “They hit a lot of ground balls (off Jackson), so if you play a little bit of defense, you’re going to be pretty good.”
With names like “Lee” and “Zach Jackson,” the Bryant pair has caught the eye of several Arkansas fans.
However, Bock said Lee is not related to former Arkansas pitcher and Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee, who played high school just down the road from Bryant at Benton High School.
Jackson has embraced having the same name as current Arkansas pitcher Zach Jackson, Bock said.
“It’s more ‘Can you do what the current Zach Jackson has done for Arkansas?’” Bock said. “I think he’ll sail right in and do a good job.”
Because Lee is a southpaw, he has also caught the attention of MLB scouts. While Bock is confident he’ll be selected in next month’s draft, he’s unsure of how high and how much money he’d be offered.
“I don’t know if he’ll get drafted where he needs to be,” Bock said. “If he gets life-changing money, then he’ll go, but if he doesn’t, the he’ll go up to the hill.”
If Lee and Jackson both end up in Fayetteville, they’ll be learning from a new coach, as longtime pitching coach Dave Jorn announced his resignation from Arkansas on Monday.
Bock said he talked to his players about Jorn’s decision during their exit meetings and they’re still fired up about becoming Razorbacks.
“It’s not going to be a blow to the program because (Arkansas coach Dave) Van Horn will find a quality person to replace him,” Bock said, “but just the comfort level knowing who’s already there and talking to Jorn the last couple of years, it’s going to be a little change for (Lee and Jackson).”
They would also be reunited with former Bryant teammate Blaine Knight, who was second on the team with a 2.98 ERA in 48 1/3 innings as a freshman at Arkansas.
Knight started seven games and made 11 relief appearances, even earning one save.
“He played a lot of different roles and wore some different hats for them,” Bock said. “I talked to Blaine last night and he talked about learning the mental approach from those different roles and learning how to keep his emotions intact with whatever happens.
“I think it was a great learning experience for him and I think he’ll take off from here. He’ll take what he’s got, learn from it and be even better next year.”
Despite losing three SEC-caliber pitchers in two years, Bryant has another arm-in-waiting.
Right-hander Austin Kelly is already committed to the Razorbacks and still has one more year at Bryant.
“He doesn’t have the feel right now for his pitches that Zach and Evan have, but he’s just a junior,” Bock said. “When he gets that feel, he’ll be just as effective as those two guys and he’s getting better all the time.”