Ada coach Ronny Johns and Byng’s Kevin Wilson both face major rebuilding jobs after each lost an outstanding core of senior players off state tournament teams this spring. But as part of the new Red Dirt Baseball League, both coaches hope to lay the foundation this summer for return trips to the big show with vastly different teams next fall and spring.

The Cougars and Pirates — rivals in one of four seven-team divisions in the statewide 28-team league — will both open their 14-game league schedules at home Tuesday night, with Ada hosting Shawnee and Byng battling McLoud in doubleheaders beginning at 6 p.m. Each division will send its top four teams to a posteseason tournament June 29 through July 2, and Johns and Wilson said the added structure in their summer schedules should pay dividends down the road.

“It (league play) will definitely help us,” said Johns, who took the Cougars to the 5A state tournament this spring for the first time since 2001 but lost senior leaders Chase Sanders, Ty Gower, Clint Bowker and Alex Leach off that club. “We’ll be playing a better schedule than we usually do in the summer.

“We’ll treat the summer like we always have, which is to try to develop players, but we’re also trying to win a league,” he added. That puts more importance on every game. We’re actually playing for something.”

Wilson, meanwhile, lost six seniors — Cody Wheeler, Ryan Estes, Heath Wall, Chad Keefer, Preston Petty and Nate Burris — off a team that won a fall state title in 2004 and was eliminated in the semifinals last spring and fall and again this spring by the team that went on to win the state title. Like Johns, he will be forced to reload with players who can use the Red Dirt schedule to gain seasoning while competing in more of a pressure situation than they would have faced in summers past.

“The teams in this league are teams we get to play in the spring,” Wilson said. “It should be a little bit more competitive.

“I’m not saying the teams around here aren’t competitive, but when we play around here (in the summer), we’re just playing games. If we play well in this league we get to go to the postseason tournament and see the bigger schools we’ll see in the spring. I think it will be good for us, because our kids know if they dont hook up and get going in a hurry they’re going to get pounded.”

Johns and Wilson said the biggest holes they have to fill are in their pitching staffs, with Ada having graduated three of its top five hurlers (Bowker, Sanders and Gower) and Byng having lost four of its top five (Wheeler, Burris, Keefer and Estes). The Cougars also lost a top catcher in Leach and their shortstop and second baseman (Sanders and Bowker), while the Pirates will start the 2006-2007 school year with an entirely new infield and two new faces in the outfield.

Both coaches were optimistic, however, that their younger players can fill in the blanks.

“Obviously, as guys get older, they improve, and we’ve got some quality players coming back,” said Johns, whose 2007 team will feature seniors Quaid Johns, Philip Tweedy, Bart Estes, Josh Balch, Chad Palmer and Dillon Branscomb. “Our objective is to fill those holes and have a pretty good idea going into January who we have that can play at the varsity level. I’m very optimistic about what we have coming back.”

“We have seven guys coming back who have pretty good game experience,” Wilson noted. “We didn’t lose everybody. All these kids have been out there practicing with us every day, but you never know what a kid will do until you put him out there.

“We might not have the pop we had last year, but I think we’ll have the ability to compete.”

Palmer and junior-to-be Willy Gould are expected to be the leaders of the new-look Ada pitching staff that could also feature Quaid Johns, Brett Walls and Dillon Phillips.

“You have to have guys who can pitch, and we’re losing a lot of innings,” Johns admitted. “That’s the biggest thing we’ll have to try to find this summer. It’s just a matter of letting guys throw against varsity hitters. It’s a lot different than pitching junior varsity.”

Johns said Riley Keith will take over for Leach behind the plate, Palmer will move into Sanders’ spot at short, and Thad Gillum and Bart Estes are the top candidates to replace Gower at second. In addition, junior Spencer Penrod is the likely replacement for Gower in the outfield, and Gould and Brett Walsh could also see action there.

Ada’s toughest hole to fill could be in the closer’s role. Bowker was one of the state’s best in 2006, and Johns said he might not be able to find one pitcher who can take that spot.

“That’s something we’re going to have to try to find out,” Johns noted. “It might be a committee of guys. Some years you have that guy and some years you don’t.”

Wilson will rely heavily on a small group of players who have some state tournament experience but played supported roles behind his six bangers at the top of the order.

Junior-to-be Dakota Atkeson, who was the Pirates No. 2 or 3 starter this spring and batted eighth as the team’s DH when he wasn’t on the mound, is expected to bat clean-up this year and has a chance to develop into one of the area’s best pitchers. Sophomores Jordan Cowger and Dakota Abbott and senior Logan Freeman will all be given a chance to fill the other spots in the rotation.

Freeman, who was the leadoff hitter on Byng’s state tournament teams in the spring and fall of 2005 and who hit over .400 in each of those seasons, will return after missing almost all of the 2006 spring campaign and will move to Wheeler’s spot in center field, and outfielder Ryan Haynes, infielder Clay Plunk, utility man Glenn Mitchell, first baseman Noel Pace and catcher Wyatt Fisher are all back after starting for most or part of the past two seasons.

Plunk is expected to move to shortstop and Mitchell (an outfielder this spring) could be second, replacing Estes and Wall (one of the state’s best double play combinations the past two years), Pace did a solid job defensively at first base last spring and fall while seeing a lot of playing time, and Fisher — who missed the end of the 2005 spring campaign with a knee injury and all of the fall season battling cancer — was solid behind the plate this spring and, like Pace, will finally get some at-bats.

“Noel should be a pretty good player for us,” Wilson said of Pace. “I don’t worry about him at all defensively. It’s just a matter of him stepping up and hitting.

“Wyatt’s arm strength is getting back to where it was,” he added. “That’s hard to believe because he already throws it so well.”

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