Two weeks into the new Red Dirt League baseball season, the Ada Cougars are still trying to figure out just how good they are — and, more importantly, how good they can be by the spring of 2008.

Ada made its second straight appearance in the Class 5A state tournament this spring, and coach Ronny Johns gave a lot of credit for his team’s playoff run to the Cougars’ participation in the first Red Dirt season last summer. After being hit hard by graduation in 2006, Johns had holes to fill throughout his lineup and on his pitching staff, but by the end of June, he was feeling pretty good about his prospects for 2007.

Before Ada was finally eliminated by Jones in a wild game at the first Red Dirt postseason tournament in Chickasha last June, Johns (who received the first ejection of his career in that loss) had seen the Cougars evolve from a group of largely wannabe varsity players into a confident team with good chemistry and a big upside.

This year’s graduation losses of four of the leaders of that squad — Chad Palmer, Quaid Johns, Josh Balch and Philip Tweedy — again left Johns with a major rebuilding job, but heading into Monday’s home showdown with Byng to begin the second half of the four-week Red Dirt season, he appears to have the pieces to fill in what, at this point at least, is still a very big puzzle.

Palmer (an All-State selection after going 8-1 on the mound), Quaid Johns and Balch were three of Ada’s top six pitchers a year ago, and Palmer (at second base), Balch (at shortstop) and Tweedy (in center field) joined catcher Riley Keith to give the Cougars one of 5A’s best defenses up the middle. Keith is back and, along with Willy Gould, Brett Walls, Spencer Penrod, Parker Patton and Dillon Phillips, gives Johns another solid core of seniors, but younger players are going to have to fill in the blanks.

On the mound, Gould has emerged as a solid No. 1 starter with impressive efforts against Ardmore and Chickasha (the 2007 Class 5A runner-up) in his first two Red Dirt outings (although he didn’t get a decision in either game), and Phillips started the summer 2-0 before pitching in bad luck in a loss to Chicasha Tuesday. Junior Keifer Truett, who will replace Palmer at second base and Balch at the top of the Ada batting order, pitched five shutout innings against McAlester at the state tournament last month and gives Johns another veteran arm.

Younger players will have to fill out the staff, though. And, while Johns appears to have the arms, he will use this summer to give his younger pitchers some badly needed experience.

Junior Jesse Cashman pitched well in his first two Red Dirt appearances, getting a win against Washington and a save versus Ardmore, and sophomore Tyler Mills had a save in the opener and a win in the nightcap in Monday’s sweep of Washington. And, while he didn’t show the consistency of Cashman or Mills in his first two outings of the summer, freshman-to-be Brendan Barr might have the biggest upside of anybody on the Ada staff.

Barr, who made an impressive varsity pitching debut in relief Monday night with six strikeouts in the final two innings of Ada’s 15-1 run-rule victory over Washington, turned in a couple of sensational plays at third base in the second game of Tuesday’s doubleheader loss to Chickasha. But he took the loss on the mound after relieving Gould in the seventh, struggling through a 40-pitch nightmare of an inning in which the Cougars — who had rallied for three runs in the bottom of the sixth to tie the game had several defensive lapses en route to a 7-3 loss.

Offensively, the Cougars have run hot and cold this month, following a 2-1 win over Ardmore in their Red Dirt opener with three impressive showings at the plate in a game 2 win over Ardmore and Monday’s sweep of Washington before struggling against three tough Chickasha pitchers Tuesday.

Penrod, Keith, Gould and Walls have been solid in the 2-through-5 holes in the Ada lineup, and, although Truett hasn’t hit a lot, he’s been getting on base consistently and setting the table for the senior sluggers who follow him. Production from the bottom of the order will probably be a key to any success the Cougars have the rest of the summer and next spring, and Johns has seen flashes of promise from that group.

Barr, who moved up from seventh to sixth in the batting order for the doubleheader against Washington, went 5-for-6 and drove in three runs in the sweep of the Warriors, and he had a huge RBI single in the sixth-inning rally in the nightcap Tuesday. Patton, who didn’t play against Ardmore, returned to first base last week and gives Johns a solid left-handed bat while joining Mills and sophomore shortstop Preston Dye to form a trio at the bottom of the order that, while still looking for some consistency, has already produced some big hits.

Although Ada has also been up-and-down defensively, most of the Cougars’ problems so far can probably be chalked up to inexperience. Keith should be one of 5A’s best catchers next spring, and Gould at third and Patton at first are both solid veterans. Dye, who has done a good job of catching the ball but has made several throwing errors at short, and Truett (who will replace Palmer at second base) are still getting to know each other in the middle of the infield and figure to be much improved by February.

Nobody in the current Cougar outfield rotation has Tweedy’s speed, arm or instincts, and that group made a couple of key mistakes Tuesday against Chickasha. Still, Penrod, Walls and Mills have the potential to be pretty good with a little playing time together.

At this point in the Red Dirt season, the Cougars appear to be a lock for one of the playoff spots out of their seven-team division, and Johns also scheduled a couple of tough tournaments (at Carl Albert and Ardmore) during the first two weeks of June. By the end of the month, this team should be battle-tested, and, with that experience and with some hard work, Ada could use Red Dirt to reach paydirt again next spring.

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