Odds are pretty good that Ada or Byng will end a long state tournament drought in baseball this spring. Unfortunately, at least one is guaranteed to be at home when the Class 4A State Tournament begins next week.
The Cougars, who haven’t played on the final week of the season since they went to the 2007 State Tournament in Class 5A, and the Pirates, who haven’t been to the 4A State Tournament since 2006, have achieved their highest season-ending rankings in years, but only one will survive this week’s regional tournament at Byng.
Robbie Burch will send his 15th-ranked Ada squad against old rival Madill in the regional opener at 11 a.m. Thursday, then Shawn Streater’s second-ranked Pirates — 26-3 and the regional’s top seed — will play Broken Bow for the other spot in the 3 p.m. winner’s bracket final. The regional championship game will be played at 2 p.m. Friday, with an “if-necessary” game scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday.
While the area’s two 4A heavyweights slug it out close to home, Class 2A power Latta will be on the road for the second round of the playoffs. Eddie Collins’ fourth-ranked Panthers will travel to Oktaha, where they will be the top seed in a regional that also includes Hominy (Latta’s first-round opponent at 1 p.m. Thursday) and No. 12 Warner and No. 16 Oktaha, who will meet in the regional opener at 11 a.m.
“I didn’t think we had any respect all year, and maybe we didn’t deserve, but (the draw) could have been worse,” veteran Latta coach Eddie Collins said. “It’s one of those (regionals) that if we just go play we should be all right.”
Byng beat Ada, 7-2, in their only meeting so far this spring to stop the Cougars’ season-opening seven-game winning streak, and both teams have had their ups and down since then. Despite losing just three times in 29 games, the Pirates struggled a bit in midseason, suffering early-round losses to Tecumseh and Shawnee at the McLoud and Shawnee tournaments, but since the loss to Shawnee they have won 11 games in a row.
“Every season is a rollercoaster, that was one of the little dips in our season,” Streater said. “The boys know what’s expected of them this week, and I expect them to come ready to play.”
Ada, meanwhile, capped another seven-game winning streak with 4-2 victory over Madill on April 13 but had lost three of four before sweeping Dickson in last week’s district tournament to improve to 19-6.
“I think we’re playing okay,” first-year Ada coach Robbie Burch said Tuesday. “We’re pitching well and playing good defense. We’re going what we need to do to be successful.”
While Streater has a proven, veteran rotation in seniors Jake Wellington and Clint Humphers and sophomore Reid Wall, Burch has spent a good portion of the spring searching for complements to ace lefty Jordan Boone. Cody Johnson was shelled early and late in an 8-2 loss to Coalgate at Byng’s Hill-Prescott Memorial Tournament two weeks ago, but he was dominant in the middle innings of that game and sandwiched that loss between impressive efforts against Madill and Dickson. Tim Simpson — the team’s regular catcher — seems to have moved into the No. 3 spot in the rotation, and Jake Boone, Micah Simmer and Walker Whitworth have all had their moments this spring.
“We’ve got kids who have come in and given us quality innings through the spring when we’ve needed them,” Burch noted. “In order to get to the state tournament, you have to have more than one pitcher, and we have more than one.
“There have been times when Jordan’s command hasn’t been as good as it should be, but he gives us a chance to win every time he’s on the mound,” Burch said. “When Cody has command of his stuff he’s going to be good and when he doesn’t, he won’t, but that’s true of anybody.”
Wall finished the fall campaign (which ended with Byng as the runner-up to Dale in Class A) as the Pirates’ ace, but Wellington has taken over that role with an impressive spring during which he has won seven straight decisions.
“We’re healthy and our arms should be ready to go,” Streater said. “Hopefully we’ll throw strikes and not make errors. The good thing is we get to stay at home (where the Pirates have played just five games this spring because of renovations to Stokes Field through March) and not have to get on an orange bus going somewhere. We’ve done enough of that this year.”
The Cougars and Pirates have both had their ups and downs offensively this spring, but Byng has averaged almost nine runs during its current winning streak, and Ada — which has one of the fastest lineups in all of 4A — outscored Dickson, 18-2, in their two meetings last week.
“Our biggest deal is we’ve got to get kids into scoring position — if we do that, we can be effective; if we don’t, we’re not going to score a lot of runs,” Burch said. “The last couple of games we did a very good job of getting on base, and lately we’ve gotten hits when we’ve needed them, which is encouraging.”
Although Byng appears to be the biggest obstacle between his team and the state tournament, Burch said he wants to take things one game at a time.
“We’re just focusing on Madill,” he said. “We’re not even thinking about Byng right now. We’ve played Madill twice, and they were close ball games both times (8-4 and 4-2, with Ada winning both). They’re very athletic, and they’re tough, hard-nosed kids. It should be a dogfight.
“I think 4A is probably top to bottom the toughest class there is,” he said. “There’s a lot of parity. There are teams without a great record who can go out there and beat anybody on a given day. It’s a very difficult classification to be in, and I don’t know if there’s a clear-cut favorite.”
As the favorite in the regional, Streater said his focus will be on giving the opposition as little help as possible.
“We want to limit our mistakes and force the other team to make mistakes,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to do that Thursday.”
Latta has played one of the state’s toughest small-school schedules again this spring, and the Panthers have stayed in the top four in 2A despite a 15-8 record. They had a dogfight before beating Wayne, 2-0 and 10-0, at last week’s district tournament at home, but they will enter the regional with a pitching staff that is on a serious roll.
Over their last five games — against Seminole, Sulphur and Coalgate at the Byng tournament and the two wins over Wayne — Latta ace lefty Taylor Dunnigan and junior right-handers Brandon Mills and Jake Collins have allowed a TOTAL of four runs and 10 hits. Dunnigan and Mills bookended the streak with solid efforts against Seminole (by Dunnigan in a 5-1 win) and Sulphur (by Mills in a 3-1 loss) and capped the streak with back-to-back one-hitters against Wayne Thursday. Collins, meanwhile, pitched five shutout innings in a 10-0 rout of Coalgate in the third-place game at Byng.
“I would feel a lot better if we got more consistent at the plate,” Eddie Collins said. “For the most part, we have given ourselves a chance to stay in ball games because of the way we’ve thrown it. I know this — we can’t stop pitching it and catching it. If we do, we’re in trouble.”
Collins said Mills or son Jake will probably start against Hominy Thursday, with Dunnigan pitching Game 2.
“If we win that first game, I’ll probably send Taylor out for the second game,” he said. “Other than the Plainview game (when he squandered an early 10-2 lead at the Ardmore Tournament), he’s been pretty good all season. He was real good against Seminole, then he wasn’t as sharp in the district tournament, but he still pitched a shutout. He’s given us about what we expected from a senior. He’s given us a chance to win.
“Brandon Mills has thrown it better than his (3-4) record,” Collins noted. “He lost to Ardmore (2-1), Washington, Byng and Sulphur. We haven’t used Jake as much as we would have liked, but he’s looked good when he’s been out there.”