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(Photo by Richard R. Barron)

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 Trips to the Class B state tournament have been a rite of passage for Tupelo baseball players each season since the fall of 2003. And veteran coach Clay Weller sees no reason why his team — ranked No. 4 and at home for this week’s regional tournament — should change its travel plans this spring.

“We feel fortunate to get to host again, and being on our home turf should be an advantage,” said Weller, whose club will carry a 17-5 record into Thursday’s regional opener against Mason. “It’s all on our shoulders. If we go play, we’re going to come out of it; if we don’t, it might be interesting.”

The regional at Tupelo is one of four at area sites in Class A or B this week (all openers are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday), and the Tigers are one of three teams who will be favored. The exception is 16th-ranked Stonewall, which will host No. 2 Sterling and No. 11 Calera in a four-team regional that also includes Velma-Alma. Stonewall will play Calera in the regional opener.

Elsewhere in Class B, No. 1 Roff (31-1) will be a prohibitive favorite at home against Kiowa, Geronimo and Big Pasture, and No. 8 Asher is the top seed in regional that also includes Carney, Mulhall-Orlando and No. 12 Verden.

The postseason begins this week for Classes 2A through 4A, and the area schedule has No. 5 Latta hosting Konawa and No. 6 Vanoss entertaining Wynnewood in 2A, No. 7 Coalgate at home against Antlers and Sulphur hosting Comanche in Class 3A and Byng visiting Dickson in 4A. All the district matchups will begin Thursday with the exception of the one in Vanoss, which kicks off today at 1 p.m.

If Tupelo can advance through a regional where No. 11 Glencoe appears to be the biggest roadblock, the Tigers will earn their school’s 13th straight state tournament berth. Weller, who won state championships in the spring of 2005 and the spring and fall of 2007, then had to totally rebuild his program after his 2007-2008 squad was gutted by graduation, said his club’s regional draw is a sign of the respect Tupelo baseball has earned during its impressive six-year run.

“I think the track record our baseball program has over the last few years has built us a good reputation,” he noted. “We enjoy that — we like hosting baseball games at our place.

“We had to build from the bottom up after those guys graduated (in 2008), and we’ve managed to do that with this group,” Weller said. “It’s a credit to these kids that they’ve been able to do that.”

One thing the current group of Tigers hasn’t done as well as most of Weller’s teams over the past half-dozen years is score runs. While Roff has been hitting home runs at a record clip, Tupelo has only one player — Jacob Beach — with as many as two home runs this spring.

“I thought we would hit some balls out of the yard, but we haven’t done that,” Weller said. “We hit a decent amount of home runs in the fall, but we just haven’t hit with any pop this spring.

“I thought offense would be our strength, but it’s been No. 3 behind pitching and defense,” he added. “I’ve really been frustrated with the lack of production we’ve had up and down the lineup. I’ve been waiting us for to bust out, and it just hasn’t happened.”

While his offense has struggled, though, Weller’s pitching and defense have developed into the Tigers’ trump cards this spring. Tupelo doesn’t have a pitcher with the credentials or strikeout totals of Roff’s talented quartet of Brendan McCurry, Blake Logan, Dayne Parker and Aaron Cornell, but Weller’s starters — Matt Benedict, Trevor Walkup, Jake Sanders and Brandon Maggia — have been getting opposing batters out all season.

“If I had to go into the state tournament right now, I’d probably throw Benedict out there first, but I think we have a bunch of 2’s and maybe a 3 (in the rotation),” Weller explained. “All four of those guys have been solid.

“Jake kind of struggled a little bit early, but he has come back to where he was in the fall, and Maggia and Sanders have given us quality starts all season,” he added. “They’re not going to strike out a lot of people, but they’ll throw strikes and let the defense work behind them. Nathan Hogue (who joins Walkup as the team’s only seniors) and Trey Roberson have done a good job in relief, so we have six guys we feel pretty good about sending out to the mound.”

Tupelo has put together a solid record despite playing one of Oklahoma’s toughest small-school schedules, but Weller said he was disappointed that Friday’s game with Class A No. 1 Soper — on the heels of a dominant district tournament win over Calvin earlier in the week — was rained out, leaving him with a few nagging doubts about his offense.

“Obviously, we would have liked to have played Soper,” he said. “We couldn’t gauge much from our district, but I still have concerns offensively.

“We haven’t hit our stride offensively all year, but I feel good about our pitching and defense,” Weller added. “If we keep throwing strikes and making the routine plays, we should score enough runs to give ourselves a chance to win.”

In spite of his team’s ranking and record, Weller knows that if the Tigers reach a 13th straight state tournament, they will be longshots for a championship in a field that should include Roff and another  perennial title contender, Red Oak.

“We gauge ourselves against the best teams in our class and other classes, and we’re not on the level with Roff or (Class 2A No. 1) Silo right now,” he admitted. “But we feel like with what we’ve had to work with and some of the players we’ve lost, our guys have stepped up and maintained our program and have kept it going in the right direction.”

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