By BOB FORREST
BYNG — Byng’s current crop of seniors won an unexpected fall state title in 2004, they made trips to the state tournament in the spring and fall of 2005, and, along with a good group of underclassmen, they have been among the top four baseball teams in Class 4A this spring.
But the Pirates and coach Kevin Wilson are feeling a sense of urgency this spring, largely because this season offers a final chance for Byng’s senior class to take care of two pieces of unfinished business. And, although the Pirates’ No. 1 priority — a run at the school’s first spring state championship — will have to wait a couple of weeks, their shot at another title — the championship in Byng’s Hill-Prescott Memorial Tournament — is at hand.
One of eight teams (and the favorite) in an outstanding field for the “27th or 28th” Hill-Prescott Memorial, Byng — ranked No. 3 in 4A — is 18-5 this season and prepped for the tournament with an impressive 10-7 win at No. 2 Tuttle Thursday. Wilson said he hopes that victory will jump-start the Pirates toward another state tournament appearance next month.
“Even with the wins we’ve had this spring, I didn’t feel like we played up to our potential until the win over Tuttle,” said Wilson, whose club will open the tournament Thursday with a 1 p.m. contest against Coalgate (No. 6 in Class 2A).
The Byng-Coalgate showdown is the first of four games on Thursday’s schedule and will be followed by a 3:15 contest between Sulphur and Class 4A No. 11 Glenpool, a 5:30 game pitting Ada (No. 9 in 5A) against Prague and the nightcap at 7:45 between defending tournament champion Latta (No. 5 in 2A) and 4A No. 7 Seminole.
“It’s one of those tournaments where there’s no team you really want to play in the first round,” Wilson said. “Coalgate is a tough first-round match-up for us, and some of the other teams have played well. It should be a good tournament and a lot of fun.”
Byng has won the Hill-Prescott Memorial just “once or twice” in its history, and the Pirates were beaten 6-5 by Latta in last year’s title game. Wilson’s club came back to avenge the loss two days later, rallying to win a free-for-all at Latta, and the Pirates advanced to the 4A semifinals before losing to eventual state champ Oologah. Latta, meanwhile, went on to a third straight 2A spring title.
This year, while Latta is rebuilding and will enter the tournament with a 7-10 record, Byng has a veteran club with a good balance of power, defense and pitching. Wilson said, however, that the Pirates still have room for improvement before the state tournament begins.
“Last year, we had eight guys hitting over .400 when we got to the state tournament — this year we have three,” he said. “Chad (Keefer), Nate (Burris) and Preston (Petty) started slow, but they’ve all started to hit. Cody Weaver (the team’s center field and the ace of the pitching staff) has been hitting as well as I’ve ever seen him, (second baseman) Heath (Wall) has been tearing it up all spring, and (shortstop) Ryan (Estes) has been hitting well.
“We’ve been winning and Chad and Preston haven’t hit at their full potential,” Wilson added. “It looks like they’re starting to get hot, so we should be even better. We’re taking a better approach at the plate and it shows. (Thursday’s win) was the first game where (opposing pitchers) made mistakes and we hammered them.”
Keefer, Petty and Burris (the team’s 4-5-6 hitters) were inconsistent early in the season, but all three homered against Tuttle, and Wheeler — who turned in a spectacular effort on the mound in Byng’s 4-3 extra-inning loss to 6A No. 1 Owasso in the Ardmore Wooden Bat Festival last month — recently moved to the leadoff spot in the lineup (replacing Glenn Mitchell) and cranked out two homers Thursday.
“Glenn did a good job in the leadoff position early, then we decided to go with Wheeler after the Ada game (an 8-5 loss on March 27 that ignited the Cougars’ surge into the 5A Top 10), and he’s done a great job,” Wilson said. “He’s got an aggressive mindset, but he’s swinging at good pitches and getting on base a lot.”
In addition to his senior leaders (Keefer, Weaver, Petty, Burris, Estes and Wall), Wilson has also been able to blend in a nice mix of underclassmen who have made big contributions, including sophomores Mitchell, Dakota Atkeson and Wyatt Fisher and junior Ryan Haynes.
“Dakota has established himself as our No. 2 starter — a guy we can count on to go out and win a game for us — and our other pitchers have had some good games,” Wilson said. “(Atkeson) is a lot more mature this spring. Last year he was just a 14-year-old kid. He’s good good stuff, and he’s got a lot more confidence.
“I feel like the kids who have gotten their chance this year have really stepped up and done the job,” he added. “The young guys can step in and know they don’t have to do big things. They just have do to their jobs, because they know our seniors will produce.”
Fisher started behind the plate as a freshman last spring before a knee injury sidelined him for the second half of the season, then he missed the fall campaign after being diagnosed with cancer. He underwent radiation and chemotherapy to put the disease in remission, and he was in the line-up when Byng opened the spring against Prague on March 7.
“Wyatt is a great story,” Wilson said of Fisher. “He’s getting stronger every day, and he’s feeling better. It’s just great to have him out there.”
Fisher joins Wheeler and the double play combination of Wall and Estes (one of the best in the state) to make Byng solid up the middle, and Wilson said his defense is coming around after what — by his standards at least — was a slow start.
“We haven’t turned as many double plays as I’d hoped, but we’re getting there,” he noted. “We turned a big double play against Tuttle that got us out of an inning, and you feel like you always have a chance to do that with the infield we have (Wall, Estes, Keefer at first base and Petty at third).”
Byng went into the 2005 spring and fall state tournaments with a lot of momentum, but the Pirates — after solid first-round wins — collapsed on offense, defense and on the mound in the semifinals each time. Wilson said those failures could provide incentive for a more successful tournament this spring.
“You kick yourself because you know you’re better than that,” Wilson said. “If we made plays we could have won both games.
“First of all we have to get (to the state tournament),” he added. “When we do get there, we just have to take it one game at a time. Hopefully, we’ll get hot at the right time and play well.”
By BOB FORREST