Bob Forrest Guest Sports Writer
The Ada News
This is the time of the year when the birds are singing, flowers are blooming and Oklahoma is turning green all over. It’s also the time of year when the state’s small-school baseball teams start “Tiger Watch.”
Since the spring of 2004, the Tupelo Tigers and Roff Tigers have combined to miss the state tournament just once in 34 tries, and seven of their combined nine state titles during that span have come in the spring. The lone miss came last fall, when Roff — coming off its fifth spring state title since 2004 but hit hard by graduation for a second straight year — failed to survive its regional. But Ead Simon’s Tigers cruised to the championship in last week’s Class A Regional Tournament at Depew, and, like Tupelo, they will be back where they belong when the state tournaments for Classes A and B open Thursday.
Roff (18-6) will carry its lowest ranking (No. 7) into the spring state tournament since 2004 (the year Simon’s first team at the school, also ranked No. 7, won the Class A title) when the Tigers face No. 3 Sterling at 11 a.m. Thursday at Dolese Park in Oklahoma City. The game will be a rematch of last month’s championship contest at the Roff Spring Tournament, when Simon’s club rallied from an early 4-0 deficit for a 6-5 victory — the Tigers’ third straight in a winning streak that ballooned to 10 with Friday 15-1 run-rule rout of Welch in the regional championship game.
“The last two years there some big question marks,” Simon said. “These kids continue to surprise me. Last year, they surprised me as much as they did anybody else.
“When we won our tournament (on April 15), we surprised everybody again,” he added. “We just work hard and don’t make excuses. We’re accountable when we make mistakes. The kids don’t get in awe of these situation. I think they just expect to be THAT GUY stepping in.”
Simon’s starting pitching has fueled the recent winning streak, with seniors Jordan Scott (5-1) and Dakota Schafer (4-4) following up dominant efforts against Class B heavyweights Lookeba-Sickles and Asher at the Roff tournament with back-to-back gems at the regional, where they combined to allow five hits in nine innings. Scott was especially impressive in a 15-0 winner’s bracket win over Welch Thursday, striking out the side in all four innings he worked, then Schafer tossed a two-hitter over five innings and struck out six in Friday’s rematch.
Simon said Scott — who pitched a complete game in Roff’s victory over top-ranked Okarche in the Class A title game last spring — has become more of a strikeout pitcher this spring because of an improved fastball to complement the breaking pitches that were his bread and butter as a junior and again last fall.
“I think he relied on his breaking pitch too much in the fall,” Simon said of Scott. “We worked with him, and he worked hard with (assistant) Coach (Danny) Baldridge over the winer to get stronger.”
Schafer suffered some tough-luck losses early this spring but has rebounded from a 1-4 start to win three straight decisions.
“Both of their velocities are up,” Simon noted. “Jordan’s has been climbing all spring, but Schafer’s has really been up his last two starts. They were both throwing well at the regional.”
Although Simon wouldn’t commit to a starter for Thursday’s rematch with Sterling, he said he is leaning toward Scott.
“It’s all about match-ups,” he explained. “There are years where you can take a chance early, but I don’t feel like this is one of those years. We’ll start three different guys more than likely. That’s the way I like to do it. We’ll probably throw Jordan Thursday and we’ll go from there.”
Roff’s No. 3 starter is freshman Hunter Larsh, who gutted out five innings to get the win against Sterling after a rocky start and, at 6-1, is the team leader in wins.
Offensively, the Tigers have gotten power and production from a pair seniors, center fielder Jeremy Grinstead and catcher Eddie Lomas, at the top of the lineup, but Simon said the key to his team’s playoff future could come from players farther down in the batting order.
“We hit (Grinstead and Lomas) 1 and 2, which isn’t the prototypical lineup, but we want them to get an extra at-bat a game,” Simon said “When our lineup is tough is when our 6-through-9 guys are getting on base. We have some speed down there, and we score runs when they get on base ahead of Jeremy and Eddie.”
Although Sterling is Roff’s highest-rated first-round spring opponent in years, Simon said he likes Thursday’s match-up and his team’s overall approach heading into the final week of the season.
“Anybody you draw up there is going to be pretty equal,” he said. “They’re good, but if we go play good we’ll have a shot to win; if we don’t, we won’t.
“We were pretty fortunate to win the last game (against Sterling at the Roff tournament),” Simon admitted. “They made some mistakes, but I think that whole tournament gave our guys some confidence. We just have to go make plays, but we should be in a pretty good frame of mind to put three good games together.”
While Roff was losing six of its first 14 games, Tupelo started the season on fire, winning 13 straight after a season-opening loss. Clay Weller’s Tigers have struggled since then, going just 7-6 in their last 13 games, but they showed signs of breaking out — especially on offense — when they scored 12 runs in their final two at-bats in a 12-2 victory over Stonewall in their regional championship game.
“I think we just need to relax early in the game,” said Weller, whose club will face Moss at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Edmond Memorial on the same field where the Tigers lost a 12-inning, 4-3 marathon to Arnett in the Class B quarterfinals last spring. “We’ve been struggling lately, and I think we’ve been trying too hard. We need to have good at-bats early and not wait until the fourth and fifth innings.”
During their winning streak, the Tupelo offense — led by sluggers Trey Roberson, Brandon “Red” Maggia and Tanner Davis — scored runs in bunches. Even through the lean times lately, the pitching staff — led by Roberson and ace Matt Benedict — has been solid.
“Pitching has probably been our strength,” Weller said. “Matt has had another good year, Trey (the winner against Stonewall Friday) has been really good his last couple of outings, and Red has some state tournament experience.
“We’re deep enough that we’ll be fine with arms,” he added. “You obviously have to make pitches, but if we play defense and swing the bats we should be fine.”
Weller said Benedict (6-2) will start Thursday’s opener, with Roberson likely next in line for the Tigers, who will enter the state tournament as Class B’s No. 1 seed for the first time in four years.
“I think Matt will probably throw against Moss,” Weller noted. “You’re taking a chance if you don’t go up there and throw your best. The only thing that worries me is that we’re not quite as good defensively with Matt (the team’s regular shortstop) throwing.”
The Tigers blew a big early lead and missed one opportunity after another to score the go-ahead run in last year’s loss to Arnett, but Weller said he isn’t worried about returning to the same field for his first-round contest this year.
“We’ve won there and we’ve lost there,” he said. “We had opportunities up there last year and couldn’t win the game. We’ve got so many veteran guys, I don’t think it will be problem.”
In Moss, the Tigers will face a team that edged No. 18 Shidler, 4-1, in its regional title game and brings a sparkling 24-4 record into Thursday’s contest.
“We haven’t seen them this spring,” Weller said of the Pirates. “They beat us in the fall.” They’re an athletic group of kids. They don’t have just one pitcher they lean on — they have two or three pretty good arms — and they hit it pretty well. They’re just a solid ball club. They’ve beaten (Class A No. 1) Rattan and some good teams. It should be a pretty good match-up.”
Weller’s teams have almost invented ways to lose state tournament games in which they were favored over the years, but he said this Tupelo squad might be ready to snap a string of eight straight season (spring and fall) without a championship.
“This group of seniors has been to the finals and they’ve been to the semifinals two or three times, so this should be their time,” he said. “We might have peaked too early, but we’re capable of going up there and putting three good games together.” -
The area’s third small-school state tournament squad, fifth-ranked Asher, will open the Class B State Tournament against No. 4 Lookeba-Sickles at 11 a.m. Thursday. Asher will bring a 23-7 record into the game, while Lookeba is 27-7.