LATTA — Eddie Collins is at a point in his career when almost nothing surprises him.

After 10 state championships (including the last three Class 2A spring titles) in 24 years as head baseball coach at Latta High School, Collins knows that what you see for 25 or 30 games during the regular season isn’t necessarily what you get as a coach come playoff time.

“I have taken some teams into the state tournament that I thought were legitimatley the best club in our class and we’ve come home the first day,” Collins said. “I’ve taken others that I thought things would have to fall just right for them, and we’ve been lucky enough to win it.

“A lot of things can happen on the way to the picnic,” he added. “You just hope that when the bell lap starts, you’re in position to make that sprint at the end. I’m ready for the playoffs to start so we can start sprinting. We’ve been jogging long enough.”

The end. The last day. The Game. For Eddie Collins and followers of Latta baseball, nothing else will do. Getting to the state tournament is fine for some programs; for Collins and his Panthers the only suitable end to any season is to be on the field for the last pitch of the state title game — and then, to celebrate.

Last season, Latta probably wasn’t the best team, man for man, in 2A. Dale was a season-long No. 1, and the Pirates had a line-up loaded with speed and power and a pitching staff that included such standouts as Jared Coon and Bobby Gideon. But after losing 10 games while playing one of the toughest regular-season schedules in the state, Latta breezed through the playoffs without a loss, outscored three state tournament opponents by a combined 32-2 and steamrolled Dale, 11-1, in a run-rule shocker for the state title.

This spring, coming off a fall campaign that saw the rebuilding Panthers finish 11-17 and fail to reach the state tournament, Collins admitted that he didn’t really know what to expect. But as the playoffs begin this week, (with Latta hosting Vanoss in Thursday’s district round), things are pretty much status quo in Class 2A, with Dale and Latta — who have combined to win 12 of the last 13 spring titles — ranked Nos. 1 and 2.

The gap between the two old rivals seems to have widened, however.

Dale’s lofty perch was expected. The Pirates have most of their best players back from last spring’s runner-up and all of the starters off the team that came out of the loser’s bracket to claim the Class A state title last fall. One through nine, their line-up might be the best in the state through Class 3A, and their pitching — headed by Coon and lefty Seth Terry — appears to be deeper than in 2005.

Latta, meanwhile, has only three starters back from the squad that claimed the school’s third straight gold ball last spring, and one only of those three — senior pitcher/third baseman Kolbie Brown — played the field AND batted during the Panthers’ most recent title run. Collins club opened at No. 8 in the rankings, fell out of the top 10 at one point, then surged to No. 2 late in the season.

“I wouldn’t have expected to be ranked No. 2 when the season started, but I wouldn’t have ruled it out,” Collins said. “We never stress rankings. We stress that wherever we are, we try to get better.”

Brown is Latta’s undisputed team leader and has become one of the most respected pitchers in Oklahoma after a string of outstanding efforts this spring, but the other two starters from the 2005 championship squad — junior Jay Husband and sophomore Dalton Brown — could be a key to any Latta title run over the next few weeks.

Husband, who began last spring in the No. 8 spot in the batting order but was the Panthers’ clean-up hitter (as the DH) in the title game, has been Latta’s most consistent hitter and top power threat for almost three full seasons (two spring and last fall) and usually follows Kolbie Brown in the pitching rotation. The junior right-hander has won only one game this spring and was roughed up in the Panthers’ loss to Sulphur Friday at the Hill-Prescott Memorial Tournament, but, like all of the Latta starters, he has faced much tougher competition for most of the spring campaign than he will probably see in the postseason.

Dalton Brown, who was Latta’s starting shortstop as a freshman last spring but rarely batted, is a switch hitter who follows Husband and older brother Kolbie in the batting order and is the third member of the Panthers’ starting staff. He has struggled with his consistency but pitched a strong seventh inning in Latta’s tournament win over Seminole Thursday and was the winning pitcher in Saturday’s third-place game against Prague.

“Jay has had some good starts for us,” Collins said. “He’s not going to strike out a lot of people. He throws to contact, so we have to catch it.

“The same is true with Dalton,” Collins added. “He’s improved every day since early in the spring. They (Husband and Dalton Brown) are interchangeable, depending on the match-up, and they both give us a chance to win.”

During the Panthers’ recent streak of spring titles, Collins has had the luxury of three proven starters to pitch in the state tournament. Last year, Kolbie Brown, Chasen Bennett and, in the title game, Nathan Johnson, shut down the opposition, and the opportunistic Latta offense generated more than enough runs to get the job done.

This season, Bennett and Johnson have graduated, and, for the first time in several years, Collins is faced with the possibility of using a starter twice during the three biggest three days of the season.

“We expect Kolbie to go out and give us a chance to beat anybody,” Collins said. “I would be hesitant to throw him twice at the state tournament, but I would never take an opportunity away from a kid if he’s sound.

“If it came to that, I would probably have to analyze how he felt,” Collins added. “I would never pitch a kid of he’s not sound, and Kolbie has a good future when he’s through with high school. He’s the ultimate competitor. He’s a warrior.”

Brown shut out Seminole over six innings Thursday night and hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last three starts. He gave up two unearned runs and didn’t get a decision in Latta’s 3-2 extra-inning loss to Sulphur on April 14, and he pitched a sparkling two-hitter in an 8-0 Latta victory over then-No. 2 Washington in his previous outing. If he is asked to pitch in the state title game, he will probably face Coon in what would be a battle between arguably the top two pitchers in Class 2A.

“I’m not sure they’re not two of the better pitchers in any class,” Collins said. “And there are some awfully good arms out there.”

The Panthers (10-10 after Saturday’s win over Prague in the third-place game of the Hill-Prescott Tourney) have struggled, however, with any other pitcher on the mound this spring. Collins said that lack of consistency is to be expected with a team that has only two seniors (Kolbie Brown and center fielder Kory Hayes) but added that it’s a problem he has to fix if his club is going to make another title run.

“You were looking at a group last spring that had played together since they were 10 years old,” Collins noted. “This group hasn’t had much varsity experience, plus they haven’t been around baseball as much as that group.

“We’re trying to teach them how it’s done, and at times we’ve found ourselves taking one step forward and two steps back,” he added. “Competition will either make you dig a hole and cover yourself up, or it will make you better.”

Despite their almost total lack of experience last fall, the Panthers were within a hit or two of a trip to the state tournament (they loaded the bases without scoring in each of the final two innings of a 5-3 loss to Silo in the regional final), and they became instantly better when infielder Dude Brown — Latta’s starting shortop before he moved away after the 2004 fall campaign — moved back to town.

Brown, the fastest player on the team and a solid left-handed bat, gives Collins a prototypical leadoff hitter, a strong defensive player as a swing man between shortstop (when Dalton Brown pitches) and second base and another quality hitter. Collins said he also provides some intangibles.

“Dude has not only contributed on the field but he’s added a lot to practice with his demeanor, his personality and his approach to the game. With him and Dalton, we have a pretty good combination in the middle of the diamond.”

Although the return of Dude Brown, Kolbie Brown’s emergence as one of the state’s top pitchers, the steady bat of Husband and the maturation of Dalton Brown all give Collins reason for optimism, the Panthers have had trouble putting strong games back-to-back. The veteran coach said, though, that last fall’s late-season surge and another brutal schedule this spring should have given his players some maturity and confidence.

“I think we probably fought the battle of identity both fall and spring to prove that we were good enough to compete for something,” Collins said. “These kids will have days when they feel like they can compete with anybody and other days when...I don’t know...we’re just not there. I’d like to think one good day leads to another, but with a young team like this you never know until you get out on the field.

“We’ve grown up a lot, but when you play the schedule we’re playing, there’s no margin for error,” he added. “Hopefully, we’re getting better. If we play like we can play, we have a shot to get to the state tournament; if we don’t play as well as we can, we probably won’t get there. One thing these kids learned last fall is that they were a lot closer than people thought they would be, and maybe they convinced themselves that they might be that good.”