The bus ride from Edmond North High School to the Golden Corral Restaurant in Edmond Friday night was a quiet one.

Byng’s baseball players — abruptly eliminated by Tuttle in the second round of the Class 4A State Tournament after having entered the week as the tournament’s No. 1 seed — and coach Kevin Wilson seemed lost in their thoughts. When the bus left Byng that morning, the mood was upbeat, and confidence was high that this team would right the wrongs of the past, advance to the school’s first title game since the 2004 and, with a victory Saturday, avenge a loss to Oologah in the second round of last spring’s state tournament and give Byng High School its first spring title in five years.

But this semifinal was remarkably like its two immediate predecessors (a 10-0 loss to Oologah last spring and a 7-1 loss to Dale last fall), with the usually potent Pirate bats falling silent in clutch situations and uncharacterisitic mistakes in the field and on the mound leading to another inexplicable meltdown. The game, which turned on a third inning that saw Tuttle score four runs without even getting a ball to the infield dirt, was over long before Lance Pride’s third hit of the evening (one of only two hard-hit balls by the Tigers all day) plated the final two runs and mercifully ended it on the run rule.

More than a game ended with Pride’s sharp single to right-center, however. Friday was the final day of an era of excellence at Byng, and the school might not see its like again for a long time. When the ninth and 10th runs crossed the plate for Tuttle just as darkness was settling over the state-of-the-art Edmond North facility Friday evening, the sun also set on the careers of six baseball players, who, as a group, were among the best this area has ever seen.

Cody Wheeler, Ryan Estes, Heath Wall, Chad Keefer, Preston Petty and Nate Burris were part of a mini-dynasty at Byng. Every spring and again in the fall during the final two years of their careers, the Pirates were among the best baseball teams in Oklahoma.

Game in and game out, his players practiced what Wilson preached on a daily basis — defense, fundamentals, pitching and timely hitting. They were a joy to watch in the field, a nightmare for opposing pitchers at the plate, and, when their pitching was having a good day, they were virtually unbeatable.

Wilson started ace Cody Wheeler in Friday’s game, opting for what seemed to be the safe play instead of saving his ace for Saturday’s expected rematch with defending state champ Oologah. And Wheeler was his usually dominating self, recording strikeouts for nine of Tuttle’s first 12 outs in the game.

But after getting ahead 1-and-2 on back-to-back hitters with one out in the third, he walked them both, putting in motion a carousel of Tuttle baserunners fueled by bunts and Byng miscues. The only hit in the inning — a bunt by Pride that landed and stopped squarely between Wheeler and Keefer at first base — followed the back-to-back walks and launched the Pirates toward arguably their most bizarre inning of the season.

Wheeler and Keefer both moved toward Pride’s hit, leaving first base unattended, and by the time Heath Wall came over from second to cover, Pride was across the bag, Wheeler’s toss was into the vast foul territory behind first base, and both baserunners who had walked had scored.

Tuttle later plated Pride on a suicide squeeze, then Wilson called for a pitchout that caught Tyler Henson more than halfway home from third and an apparent dead duck. Catcher Wyatt Fisher did his job, rushing straight at Henson, who suddenly dropped to the ground and under the tag then sprang to his feet and covered the final few feet to home plate to score the fourth run of the inning.

The Tigers added six more runs over the next two innings, but, with Byng failing to hit with runners in scoring position in the early innings for the second straight day, the third inning was the death knell for the Pirates and their title hopes.

“I told the kids to keep their heads up because they accomplished a lot, but it certainly didn’t end the way we wanted it to or the way expected it to,” Wilson said. “I really thought this was our year, but you have to go out there and play, and we didn’t.

“I don’t have an explanation for it,” he added. “If I did, I would have fixed it beforehand. If we score early, I think it’s a different game. We didn’t score when we had a chance, and it kind of put us back on our heels. (Tuttle) hit popup after popup that just kept falling in the fifth. It was their day and it wasn’t ours.”

As Wilson and his players sat together for the last time as a team at the restaurant after the game, the mood seemed to lighten. Smiles, light conversation and even some occasional laughter replaced the silence — broken only by an occasional sniffle — from the bus ride over, and, although they probably didn’t realize it at the time, the Byng players — especially the seniors — got on with the rest of their lives.

“They will be tough to replace,” Wilson said of his graduating team leaders. “They weren’t just good players, they were good kids. They all have bright futures, whether it’s in baseball or something else.

“I think Chris Olinger, our manager (who was so distraught that he waited on the bus while the team ate), took the loss harder than anybody,” Wilson added. “He’s a great kid, and he’s been with these players from the seventh grade up. We’re just an extended family, and they don’t come along very often with his dedication and his knowledge of the game.”

Roff (which also lost six seniors off its second Class A championship team in three years) and Byng will be hit harder by graduation than any baseball teams in the area next fall, but both figure to be competitive once again. Roff has a group of talented eighth graders and several returning starters who are expected to continue the legacy established by their predecessors, and Wilson said he expects some younger players who made contributions this season to accept a much bigger role this fall.

“We’ve got Noel (Pace) coming back, and he should be able to step in for Chad at first; we have (Ryan) Haynes (who had a solid posteason) and (Logan) Freeman (who was the Byng’s leadoff hitter and right fielder before being suspended early this spring) in the outfield; (Dakota) Atkeson (who was one of the team’s best starting pitchers as a sophomore and should take Petty’s spot at third base) and Glenn Mitchell (a two-year starter) will be back, and (infielder) Clay Plunk played a lot for us this year,” Wilson said. “Wyatt (Fisher) will also be back behind the plate at full strength (after suffering a knee injury as a freshman last spring and missing the fall campaign while successfully battling cancer).”

“With this team, every day was just a refresher, because they knew what to do, but next year I’ll really have to do some coaching, because we’ll be so young,” Wilson added. “I think we’ll be pretty good, though. We won’t have as much firepower, but we should be faster. We’ll still set the same goals. We’ll expect to get to the state tournament and win it.”

This Week's Circulars