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Zone tournament starts

American Legion teams have wrapped up their regular season schedules this week and have their eyes on postseason tournaments. Zone tournament play began Thursday at North Little Rock’s Burns Park.

If you want a good measuring stick as to who might be the favorite to move into the state tournament, you need to look no further than the pitching mound.

The American Legion postseason is a bit different than the regular season. While teams play seven innings during the regular year, postseason brings a nine-inning format, further bleeding pitching depth.

Jacksonville coach Bob Hickingbotham says pitching depth is critical in the postseason and getting off to a good start in game one is even more important.

He will start Jessie Harbin, the former Jacksonville Red Devil standout and Arkansas-Little Rock signee, in their tournament opener.

“He’s pitched real well,” said Hickingbotham.

Fourth-seeded Jacksonville will be at a decided disadvantage because of lack of experienced pitching, putting even more pressure on Harbin’s performanceagainst Cabot. Harbin was the most valuable player of the Class 6A Tournament when the Red Devils won the title in 2011. Jacksonville has split with both top seeds, North Little Rock and Sylvan Hills, while being swept by Cabot, the fourth seed.

“We may have to piece-meal our pitching staff together,” Hickingbotham said.

North Little Rock and Sylvan Hills are the top two seeds in the tournament, which begins today.

“Seems to work out that the team you have the most trouble with during the season is the one you start out with in the tournament,” Hickingbotham said.

Brandon Eller has a bit more experience to pick from on his staff. He will send Dylan Boone to the mound in Sylvan Hills’ opener and will likely follow with Connor Eller, who will play next year at Crowder (Kan.) College, if things go well in game one.

Some teams will extend some of their late-season games to nine innings in order to get their clubs acclimated to extended innings, but Hickingbotham said it’s still hard on most teams to deal with.

Sylvan Hills has earned a bye as a second seed and will not see action until Conway and Russellville slug it out in their opening contest.

Eller said, however, that his team hasn’t played much like a top-two team as of late losing their last three in a row.

On paper, coach Eller has as many as nine pitchers at his disposal.

“If they all show up,” said Eller. “That’s been our problem lately.”

Whomever has the most pitching and most pitching depth likely will move on to state tournament.

North Little Rock, a team heavy on players from Maumelle and Central Arkansas Christian, has earned the top seed. Coach Robert Hopkins said the Colts (25-9) have played well all-around and “our pitching has been better than I thought. We don’t have anyone who really dominates, but we do have five or six kids who have kept us in ball games. We have also defended well.”

Jack Hopkins, Jacob Stripling and Michael Hodge have been the front-liners on the mound. Hodge, who also plays right field, has also been one of the offensive leaders, along with John Chapman, Tyson Tackett, Dillon Richardson and Nick Cleveland. He said Ty Schaller also has played well when he could get to games around a busy work schedule.

“The bad news for us is we will be without Chapman because he has torn two ligaments in the hand [and] will have surgery,” said Hopkins.”He has been a leader and our heart and soul.”

North Little Rock also will host the state tournament next week. As the host team, the Colts are assured of a spot in the state round.

Jeff Reed contributed to this story.

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Tournament schedule

First round

Cabot 12, Jacksonville 10

Russellville 7, Conway 6

Round two, Friday

Sylvan Hills vs. Russellville, 4 p.m.

Cabot vs. NLR, 7 p.m.

Saturday

Loser’s bracket

Jacksonville vs. Sylvan Hills-Russellville loser, 1 p.m.

Conway vs. Cabot-NLR loser, 4 p.m.

Friday winners, 7 p.m.

Sunday

Elimination game, 4 p.m.

Elimination game, 7 p.m.

Monday

Championship game, 7 p.m.

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