By BOB FORREST
ASHER — When the 2005-2006 school year began, Asher and Wanette represented a classic case of a ‘has-been’ and a ‘never-was’ in high school baseball.
Asher has a long tradition of excellence (including a remarkable 45 state titles) but a recent history that has been something else entirely. Wanette, meanwhile, has never reached a state baseball tournament; in fact, the school had, by all accounts, never made it the regional round of the playoffs before its co-op team with Asher beat Wayne and Maysville to win last week’s district tournament.
As a result of those district victories, Wanette-Asher has a chance make history for one school and wake up the echoes for another this week. Asher will be one of eight regional sites Thursday and Friday where 32 teams will play for the right to advance to the Class A state tournament May 4-6.
“Everybody at both schools is pretty excited,” said Asher coach David Rolette, who was co-head coach with former Wanette head man Matt Pierce last year but took over the Wanette-Asher team when Pierce moved to Stuart before the 2005-2006 school year began. “If we can get through this week, it will be Wanette’s first state tournament. In fact, last week might have been the first district championship for Wanette.
“I think we probably got as good a draw in regional as we could have hoped for,” Rolette added. “Stonewall (No. 4 in Class A and the top seed in the Asher regional) is a good team, but I’m pleased with the draw. If we get some breaks and play our best we have a chance to win.”
While area powers Roff (No. 1 in Class A), Allen (No. 8 in Class A) and Stonewall are on the road this week, Asher and Tupelo (Class B) are the only two area schools hosting regional baseball tournaments. Among larger schools (which begin postseason play this week with district tournaments), Byng has a bye through to its regional in 4A, and Latta, winner of the last three 2A spring state titles, will host Vanoss in the district round Thursday.
Roff (30-5), which routed Fox, 15-0 and 20-0, to advance out of the district round, will travel to Fletcher, where the Tigers will open regional play against No. 14 Cyril at 3:30 p.m. Thursday in a foursome that also includes Hydro-Eakley and host Fletcher.
Allen (20-6) also faces a long road trip this week, traveling to Dewar, where the Mustangs will face No. 9 Central-Sallisaw (which eliminated Roff in the first round of last spring’s state tournament) in a tough opening-round contest at 3:30 p.m. Thursday. Weleetka will face Dewar in the 1:30 game.
In softball, area girls teams who remain alive after last weekend’s district round will also have to be road warriors, with Roff (No. 7 in Class 2A) facing host Butner at 2:15 p.m. Thursday in the first round of the regional tournament; Latta (No. 6 in 4A) battling Keys at 2:15 in regional action at Oktaha; 4A No. 5 Konawa traveling to Washington, where the Lady Tigers will open play against Hennessey at 2:15 Thursday and eventually figure to face top-ranked Washington for the regional crown; Asher (No. 13 in Class A) meeting No. 8 Temple at 2:15 p.m. Thursday at Coleman; and Tupelo (No. 2 in Class A) traveling to Moss for a 2:15 p.m. game Thursday with Whitesboro and a probable showdown with No. 5 Moss later in the tournament.
At Asher, Rolette’s senior-laden club will open the regional tourney at 1:30 p.m. Thursday against Binger-Oney, with Stonewall to face Depew in the second game of the day. Wanette-Asher comes into the regional ranked No. 15 in Class A, and the team’s 20-8 record this spring represents the high-water mark in a process that began two years ago, when a pair of old rivals without sufficient numbers to field baseball squads on their own decided to join forces.
“This is our fourth season in the co-op,” Rolette said. “I knew when I was hired (in 2002) that the numbers looked good for two years, but there just weren’t any numbers in junior high.”
The co-op squad had a miserable fall season in 2004 and started last spring apparently going nowhere once again, but Rolette (who took his first two Asher teams to the state tournament) and Pierce turned their club around in mid-season. After beating a number of ranked teams on the way to the postseason, Wanette-Asher came within one victory of upsetting Stonewall in the district tournament, then last fall Rolette’s squad finished a respectable 18-15 and lost to Latta in the first round of the playoffs.
This season, boasting a line-up that features six seniors (Jerry Richards, Allan Lamb, Daniel Schoemann and J. J. McClendon from Wanette and Asher’s Jacob Cole), Wanette-Asher has used a high-powered offense, solid defense and improved pitching to move into the elite in Class A, despite having only 12 players on the roster.
“I knew we would hit the ball, and I thought the defense would be good, but the pitching is what has really come around to help us be successful,” Rolette said.
Lamb has won seven games and saved “five or six” to lead the staff, Schoemann (the probable starter in Thursday’s opener) and Richards are both 5-1 this spring, and Cole (who recently returned to the team after missing three weeks with an ankle injury) is 2-1.
“Jacob hasn’t pitched since he injured his ankle, but we’ll probably have to use him this weekend,” Rolette said, noting that while Cole (who pitches, catches, plays third base and bats third in the line-up) was out, his club struggled to a 2-5 record.
“We’ve had some big wins and some losses we shouldn’t have had this spring, but any time you win 20 games in this neck of the woods, it’s a good season,” Rolette said. “Overall, I’m happy with the way we’ve played. These kids understand what we’re trying to do, and they’re very open and very coachable. Things seem to be coming together at the right time.”
At Tupelo, Clay Weller’s young Tigers have everything in place for another trip to the Class B state tournament and a chance to defend the spring title they won in 2005. They followed that championship (the school’s first spring gold ball in almost 40 years) with a runner-up finish (to Dover) last fall, and, like Rolette, Weller said his regional draw (which includes Kiowa and Buffalo Valley in addition to Battiest) is a good one.
“Buffalo Valley is a perennial state contender...we beat them last fall,” Weller noted. “Battiest (another recent Tupelo playoff victim) is kind of scrappy, so if we just kind of go through the motions, they are teams that can sneak up on us.
“If we come with the right mindset, we’ll be okay, and this time of year I don’t know why we wouldn’t,” he added. “And being at home helps.”
Weller lost four seniors — including team leaders Daniel Ingram and Cody Pearce — off his 2005 spring champs, and he has only one upperclassman (Jerry Hines) on this year’s squad, but the Tigers feature a quartet of hitters (junior Casey McCollum, sophomore Cameron Mann, sophomore Randy McCurry and junior Paul Sweeney) batting two-through-five in the line-up to compare with any foursome in Class B and three starting pitchers (McCurry, Mann and sophomore Chad Woods) who have been outstanding this spring.
Defensively, the Tigers haven’t been as consistent as the 2005 squad, and Weller said he is still searching for “the intangibles” that set last spring’s champs apart.
“This team doesn’t really have the leadership we had last spring,” he explained. “We had those seniors, so there was no doubt where our mindset was every game.
“At times, our youth comes out and we lose focus,” Weller added. “That would be the only thing that I would worry about going into the regional and, hopefully, next week. All the pieces of the puzzle are there. We just have to put them together.”
In McCurry (who is also the team’s clean-up hitter), Mann (who bats in the three-hole) and McCollum (one of the area’s best shortstops and fastest players), Weller has three players who, despite their years, have already excelled on the state’s biggest baseball stage.
McCurry (whose only loss this spring came to defending Class 4A champ Oologah) pitched shutouts in two of his three previous state tournament starts; Mann — one of the state’s top catchers and arguably the area’s top slugger — was the best clutch hitter at the 2005 spring and fall Class B state tourneys; and McCollum led Coalgate to the 2005 3A spring state tournament and hit a home run in the Wildcats’ opening-round loss to eventual state champ Chandler.
If Tupelo can reach the state tournament for the eighth straight season (fall and spring) under Weller, McCurry figures to start the opener and, if the Tigers survive, Mann is scheduled to pitch Game 2. Weller said Woods will start Thursday’s regional opener, with McCurry to pitch the nightcap and Mann scheduled to go Friday’s.
Weller admitted that Tupelo’s appearance in the state finals last fall was something of a surprise after a season when his young team struggled to find itself, especially on defense. He said the loss to Dover was a disappointment but added he thinks that defeat could provide some extra incentive for his club over the next 10 days.
“We would like to have won it last fall, but it gave us something to build on again this spring,” Weller said.
By BOB FORREST