Ada Post 72 coach Travis Graham came out of last week’s zone tournament with a lot of pluses to carry into this week’s American Legion State Tournament.
Graham’s Braves fought off a determined upset bid from a gritty McAlester squad to advance to the state tournament for the third straight summer and will head to Bartlesville for Wednesday’s (5 p.m.) state tournament opener with the Oklahoma City Ruffnecks having won nine of their 10 July games to improve to 24-16.
Ada’s late surge was good enough to land the Braves — last year’s state runner-up — a No. 2 seed in the elite eight behind only the Midwest City-based Oklahoma Outlaws, the defending state Legion champion.
The Post 72 pitching staff, bolstered by the return of hard-throwing right-handers Jon Gray and Blake Logan, has been solid this month, with the only hiccup a 232-pitch marathon in Thursday’s 11-9 victory over McAlester to open the zone tournament, and the offense — the team’s biggest question mark when the season began — has been productive since mid-June.
But perhaps Graham’s biggest reason for optimism this week is the fact that, despite his team’s improvement since late May, he still doesn’t think he’s seen the best the Braves have to offer.
“Of course I always want to be better, and I don’t know if we’ve played our best baseball yet,” Graham noted. “I’m hoping that comes out now. A lot of our kids had state tournament experience at the high school level, so that should help, and Bartlesville is one of the nicest fields in the state, so it’s a good environment.
“Young is not always bad,” he added. “(Assistant) Coach (Daniel) Wood and I selected this team to get some guys who are excited to be where they are, and when our guys have been playing for something, they’ve turned it up a notch. I don’t want us to play on emotion, but I want our intensity level to go up now and for everybody to give me nine innings. That’s what we’re looking for this week.”
The Braves-Ruffnecks contest will be the third of four opening-round games to be played Wednesday, beginning with the Edmond Stars meeting Ardmore in a showdown of 4 and 5 seeds. Dewey, the No. 8 seed, will take on the Outlaws at 1:30 p.m., and host Bartlesville will play No. 3 seed Three Rivers in the nightcap at 8 p.m, with the winner and loser facing their opposite number from the Ada-OKC game Thursday in the double-elimination event.
Former Byng ace Blake Wheat, 7-2 and easily the staff leader in victories this summer, will start on the mound Wednesday, with Gray (2-0) and Logan (4-4) expected to pitch the Braves’ second and third games. David Cagle (2-4) and Tyler Porter (2-0), who joined Gray this year as the only returnees from the 2009 Post 72 pitching staff, could also get starts later in the week, depending on how the Braves fare in their first couple of games.
“Outside of the first night against McAlester, I’ve been real happy with our pitching lately,” Graham said. “Wheat will start Game 1, with Rhett Acker and Tyler Porter out of the pen, we’ll probably have Gray throw the second day, then I’ll use whatever I have to to get to the finals.”
Graham lost the top six hitters in his 2009 lineup to Legion age restrictions, and the Post 72 offense struggled early in the season.
Lately, though, the Braves have been scoring runs in bunches, and, despite stranding 33 baserunners in 17 at-bats and leaving the bases loaded seven times in the zone tournament, the Ada offense was an extra-base machine, with four home runs (from four different players), six doubles and a triple from 22 hits in the two wins over McAlester.
“A lot of it was just adjustment,” Graham said of his club’s slow start offensively. “We have a lot of younger guys, and to go from seeing high school pitching to seeing a team’s No. 1 or No. 2 pitcher thrown against you every day is tough.
“They’ve made that adjustment as the season has gone on,” he added. “You have to think the game while it’s going on, and that’s what we’re doing. Coach Wood has worked hard with our hitters, and (the offense) is a strong point right now.”
Graham said he was concerned about the missed opportunities to break open both games in the zone tournament, but he saw a silver lining in that cloud as well.
“If you leave 33 guys on base, you’re getting guys on base, so our guys are giving us a chance to win,” he noted. “A lot of our guys haven’t experienced the American Legion playoffs before, and I think they were putting too much pressure on themselves at the plate.
“We’re getting a lot of guys on base and we’re taking a lot of walks (18 in the two zone contests, including 14 in the opener), which means we’re seeing the ball well,” Graham said. “If we keep that up, good things are going to happen for us. I hope we can get it together and not leave so many guys on base. That has to be our approach going into this.”
Although clearly a much different team than the ones Graham took to the state tournament the past two seasons, this year’s Post 72 squad will have the same seed as the 2009 Braves.
“I felt like we got a good draw,” Graham said. “Last year, there were probably four teams that could have won state as easily as Midwest City did, and this year, there are at least four teams again who look like they can win it. What you did before the state tournament doesn’t win you a state championship, it just prepares you. Hopefully we’re prepared for it right now. These four or five games are what decide your season.
“I don’t feel like we’re exceptional at anything right now, but I think pretty good everywhere,” he said. “We’ve had some tough losses this year, but that has made us more resilient. Some of the games we’ve won, we’ve been behind and came back to win, so I think we’re tougher than we were early in the year. Mentally and physically, we’re prepared. Hopefully the ball will bounce our way.”