Since its debut on the area schedule in 1995, the Roff Spring Baseball Tournament has evolved into one of the state’s best small-school baseball shootouts. And this year’s field might be its deepest ever.
In addition to the host Tigers (ranked No. 2 in Class A), the tournament has drawn Dale (No. 2 in 2A), Rattan (No. 4 in Class A), Lookeba-Sickles (No. 5 in Class B), Fort Towson (No. 16 in Class A) and Vanoss (No. 18 in 2A). In fact, Ripley and the Durant junior varsity are the only unranked clubs in the eight-team bracket.
“On our side of the bracket, you’ve got Lookeba, who beat Okarche (No. 1 in Class A) the other day and gave them their first loss, and on the other side, you’ve got Dale and Rattan as the top seeds,” Roff coach Ead Simon said. “Top to bottom, it’s a pretty tough tournament.”
Roff will take on the Durant JV in the tournament opener at 12:30 p.m. Thursday. Other first-round contests have Dale facing Vanoss at 2:30, Lookeba-Sickles meeting Fort Towson at 5 p.m. and Rattan playing Ripley at 7 p.m.
Semifinals will be held at 5 and 7 p.m. Friday, and the championship game is scheduled to be played at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Simon’s veteran squad cruised to the title in 2010 on its way to the Class B state championship, and, despite staggering graduation losses off the 2009-2010 team, the Tigers — who finished 1-3 in pool play at this weekend’s Owasso Tournament (after reaching the title game a year ago) — are expected to be in the hunt for their school’s fifth spring title (and sixth overall) since 2004.
“I think we’re a lot better than we were last fall,” said Simon, whose club manhandled Latta and Byng in a tough regional last October before blowing an 8-1 lead to Okarche in a first-round loss at the Class A state tournament. “(The Owasso Tournament) kind of stretched us out and exposed some weaknesses, but I feel like we’re a whole lot better.
“I think we’ll be in the thick of it (in Class A) when it’s all said and done,” he added. “I think it’s a good class to be in. Traditionally, Classes A, 3A and 5A don’t seem to be as tough sometimes as B, 2A, 4A and 6A. There are some good teams in Class A, but nobody’s proven they’re above anybody else. If I was going to pick a class to try to win a state title in this spring, it would be Class A.”
Roff returned only three starters — catcher Brendon Barr, infielder Tim “Turtle” Wallen and outfielder Mark Bryant — last fall off the team that finished 38-1 (with the only loss to 6A power Owasso) last spring, and the Tigers had some growing pains early before winning their regional as the No. 3 seed in the four-team field at Latta. Simon said the experience his new starters gained from last season’s Cinderella state tournament run, coupled with two key additions to the lineup, have made the Tigers a more complete team this spring.
“I feel like we’re hitting it better one-through-nine than we did in the fall,” he explained. “Kids are getting more comfortable with their roles. We had kids who are seniors who hadn’t played much until last fall, and they’ve gotten some playing time.
“Just the experience factor has made a lot of difference,” Simon said. “We had kids who had been to state tournaments, but until you actually play in those spots, you don’t really understand what it’s all about.”
Simon said his offense and pitching were bolstered by the addition of junior Dakota Schafer, a transfer from Ponder, Texas, while sophomore Bryce Antonio has added speed and versatility on defense.
“Dakota has been our first or second best arm at times, and he’s hitting the ball real well,” Simon said of Schafer, who pitched the Tigers to their only pool-play victory at Owasso (to improve to 3-0 this spring) and also shut out Broken Bow earlier in the season.
“We just couldn’t make plays and get people out at the state tournament in the fall, so I was looking for ways to get more athletic over the winter,” he said. “Bryce is a good athlete. He runs well, and he can play left field, second base and shortstop, depending on who’s pitching. He’s made us a lot better defensively and he’s given us speed in those spots.”
Schafer has provided a needed boost to a pitching staff that graduated four All-State-caliber starters last spring. Simon said the rest of his rotation — led by seniors Wallen, Mark Bryant and Remington Pope and junior Jordan Scott — doesn’t have a dominant arm but has been effective nonetheless during Roff’s 14-6 start to the season.
“I don’t know if we have a No. 1 at this point,” Simon explained. “We’re not going to shut a lot of people out, but all of our pitchers give us a chance to win.”
The Roff offense isn’t as explosive as the one that helped the Tigers to three consecutive state titles (spring and fall) between the spring of 2009 and the spring of 2010 and set a national single-season home run record last spring, but Bryant has been an effective table-setter from the leadoff spot, and Barr, Wallen, Schafer, Pope (the team’s shortstop), senior Chance Tolliver (who hit two home runs in a loss to Broken Bow March 26 in the championship game at the Rattan Tournament) and junior Eddie Lomas have supplied a lot of pop in the middle of the lineup.
“Brendon and Tim both had good falls, but this spring they’ve carried us offensively,” Simon noted. “You can’t expect kids to hit every time their spot rolls around, but they’re almost doing that right now. They’ve been what you want senior leaders to be.
“Eddie swung it really well early in the season,” he said of Lomas, who can play the infield or outfield and has also backed up Barr behind the plate. “I like him hitting behind Barr and Turtle.”
Simon said last fall’s playoff run earned his club some badly needed state tournament experience and also gave the Tigers a shot of confidence at the end of a season that began with them as one of the state’s biggest question marks.
“I think it was huge to get there last year,” he said. “Nobody thought we would even be there. Most people had us penciled out of that regional, but our kids expect to win.
“If we get back there, we’ll see if we learned from it,” Simon added. “I just felt like we made some mental mistakes up there that you can’t make if you’re going to win. Hopefully, we’ll get an opportunity to see.”
And, although this might not be his most talented team in his eight years as Roff’s baseball coach, Simon said the Tigers’ “us against the world” attitude has made it one of his closest.
“They’re all really good kids, and they work hard,” he said. “We’ve heard everybody tell us from other towns and even from our own town that we weren’t going to measure up.
“The fan base hasn’t been there like it was in years past, and I think that also kind of brings us together a little bit,” Simon added. “Any time you’re told you can’t do something, that makes a person want to do it even more.”