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Tigers trying for 15 straight Junior Matt Benedict is one of the leaders of a Tupelo pitching staff being counted on to carry the Tigers to their 15th straight Class B state tournament (fall and spring) since 2004.

Photo by Richard R. Barron
Ada Evening News

Over the past seven years, supporters of the baseball programs at Tupelo and Roff have been able to count two things — a trip to Oklahoma City in October and another in May for the state tournament.

Since the spring of 2004, Clay Weller’s Tigers from Coal County and their old rivals, Ead Simon’s Tigers from Pontotoc, haven’t missed a single opportunity to play on the final week of the season. Their joint streaks reached 14 last fall, when Tupelo advanced to the Class B championship game for the first time since the fall of 2007 and Roff — which had won three straight state titles (spring and fall) in Class B — was eliminated in the Class A quarterfinals after upsetting one of the toughest regional tournaments in recent memory.

Later this week, Tupelo (No. 2 in Class B) and Roff (No. 3 in Class A) will both be overwhelming favorites to advance out of regional tournaments at home and stretch their remarkable state tournament streaks to 15 straight. Tupelo (25-8) will be the top seed in a four-team field that also includes No. 17 Stuart and unranked Victory Life and Varnum, while Roff (21-8) will entertain three unranked teams — Bowlegs, Ringling and Davenport. They will both open their regionals at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, with Tupelo taking on Victory Life and Roff facing Bowlegs.

In other regionals this week involving area teams, Class A No. 16 Stonewall will try to advance past host Caddo and No. 12 Rock Creek (the Longhorns’ first-round opponent at 3:30 p.m. Thursday) and reach the state tournament for the first time since the spring of 2008 and Asher will face host Lookeba Sickles (No. 5 in Class B) in a regional that also includes No. 16 Moss.

Despite being ranked No. 2 behind Red Oak throughout the spring, Tupelo has had a rollercoaster of a season. The Tigers started 3-3 before winning nine games in a row, and Weller — who won spring state titles in 2005 and 2007 and a fall championship in 2007 — said he will be looking for a little stability, especially from his offense, this week.

“It’s just Jekyll and Hyde, that’s the best way I can describe it,” he said Monday. “I’ve never had a team so inconsistent at the plate, and that’s the last thing you want as a coach.

“Sometimes we’ll put together 25 or 30 bad at-bats in a row, and that’s uneard of,” Weller added. “I would like to say I’m starting to feel better about it, but we have to be better than we have been. The disappointing thing is that we have good hitters throughout our lineup.”

Weller’s roster is full of players who helped fill the void after wholesale graduation losses in the spring of 2008 gutted a program that had dominated Class B the previous three years. Two of Tupelo’s three seniors — Jake Sanders and Kade Curry — were both freshman starters on the Tiger squad that reached the state tournament in the fall of 2008 despite finishing 10 games under .500, and and the third, Jacob Beach, is a three-year starter.

“This is a group that got thrown into the fire, and they have been through a lot of battles together,” Weller noted. “We want to take care of business this week and not be looking ahead. I feel like we got a good draw. We’re pleased to be hosting again. The only team I know about in our regional is Stuart. They’re ranked 17th and have some decent wins under their belt, but with the draw we got, we have to feel pretty good about it.

“Our pitching has been our most consistent thing all year and I feel good about it going into the regional,” Weller explained. “I feel like we peaked at the Rock Creek Tournament (in early April). The last week or so I haven’t felt as comfortable with our club as I would like. Offensively we have some holes, but pitching sets the tone with us. If we pitch it well, we should be fine.”

Sanders, the Tigers’ leadoff hitter, shortstop and No. 3 starting pitcher, is hitting a team-high .460, and Curry — who was dropped to the bottom third of the batting order earlier in the season — is the team’s first baseman and has been one of its hottest hitters over the past couple of weeks.

“Jake has been our most consistent hitter all season,” Weller said of Sanders. “Kade has to be more consistent, but he’s been better over the last couple of weeks and he’s had better at-bats. We dropped him down in the lineup but we moved him back up to the three-hole recently. We’re still shuffling our lineup.”

Trey Roberson (7-2) has joined fellow junior Matt Benedict (6-4) to give the Tigers’ a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the their rotation and has also been producing with the bat over the past month.

“Trey has probably been our best pitcher and our most consistent hitter the second half of the season,” Weller said of Roberson, who beat Class 2A No. 2 Dale on the road earlier this month. “Matt has been our workhorse, our No. 1 (pitcher) all year. We’ve thrown him against the best teams we’ve played. He’s not going to wow you with velocity, but he’s a pitcher. He can throw his curve ball in fastball counts, and he can keep you off-balance.

Along with Sanders, Curry and Roberson, Weller is counting on Brandon Maggia — the team’s regular third baseman and No. 4 starting pitcher — and catcher Tanner Davis to help carry his offense over the final two weeks of the season.

“Maggia has been our best RBI guy,” Weller noted. “Tanner has been consistent at the plate — he’s not what I would call a great hitter, but he can put some consistent at-bats together.”

After losing to Red Oak — which has reached every Class B championship game since the spring of 2008 — in the title game last fall, Weller and his players realize they will need an almost perfect performance to upset the Eagles this spring. Weller said his team would simply like another opportunity.

“Red Oak is far and away the class of Class B and maybe Class A, 2A and 3A — they’re that good,” Weller said. “We’re going to have to go up there and play well against them and maybe catch them on an off day.

“From about No. 2 to 10 (in the rankings), you’re not going to see a lot of difference,” he added. “It just comes down to who shows up and plays good, consistent baseball on a particular day.”

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