To paraphrase an old television commercial, if any of the five area softball teams facing regional tournaments Thursday earn spots in next week’s state tournament, they’ll do it the old-fasioned way — they’ll earn them.
Despite being ranked in the top four in Classes 2A or 4A heading into their regionals, Latta, Konawa, Stonewall and Tupelo all figure to face dogfights Thursday. And, despite a late-season surge that has pushed them back into the 5A rankings (at No. 19), Sulphur’s Lady Bulldogs might just need a miracle if they’re going to play another week.
While the other four members of the area delegation will face teams that, while ranked, are all below them in the rankings, Sulphur drew what could be the toughest regional in the state in any class. Not only do the Lady Bulldogs have to travel to Purcell to face 5A’s No. 1 team in the first round, but they also have to get past either No. 4 Blanchard or No. 12 Newcastle to earn one of the two state tournament berths out of the regional.
“The thing about being in 5A is that every regional draw is tough,” said second-year Sulphur coach Blake Crawford, whose surging squad swept both Tupelo and Latta in a three-way at Latta Tuesday. “When you are among the top 16 teams in a class full of great ball clubs, you have to expect a tough regional.
“I will say if we continue to play softball the way we have been the last two weeks, we have as good a shot as anyone does to be playing the final week in the state tournament.”
The Purcell regional might have more concentrated power, but the regional with the most local flavor will be at Stonewall, where the host Lady Longhorns (No. 3 in 2A) and No. 4 Tupelo head a four-team field that also includes No. 15 Soper and No. 16 Cameron.
Stonewall coach Christie Jennings and Tupelo head man Jason Goostree both said they got pretty much what they expected from their regional draw.
“Especially after the Roff district turned out like it did (with the sixth-ranked Lady Tigers being eliminated by No. 12 New Lima), I figured it would be us and Tupelo at the regional,” Jennings said. “(The Tupelo girls) know a lot about us and we know a lot about them. It’s an advantage for both teams’ fans, because it’s not a very far drive.”
“In this part of the state there were a few other options, but that was what I expected,” Goostree said. “I think 2A is really deep — I don’t think anybody got an easy regional.
“(Tupelo and Stonewall) are ranked higher, but Soper has some good wins, and Cameron beat a ranked team in their district to get out,” he added. “"This year it wouldn’t matter what regional you got sent to — it would have been the same situation. Everybody (in 2A) is going to be tested going into the state tournament.”
The Lady Longhorns have already won more games (35) than any team Jennings has had in seven years as Stonewall’s softball coach, and they have also achieved their highest ranking on her watch. But, like Goostree, she said she isn’t taking anything for granted this week.
“Cameron and Soper (which will play Tupelo at 2:15 Thursday) can both really hit it,” she noted. “I hope we can take care of business with Cameron (Stonewall’s opponent in the regional opener at 1 p.m.) and stay in the winner’s bracket, but I think all four teams are better than most people think.”
Stonewall and Tupelo both appear to be entering the regional on the upswing. The Lady Longhorns beat 3A No. 6 Tushka Tuesday in their final regional prep to improve to 35-10, and the Lady Tigers beat Latta before falling to Sulphur at Tuesday’s Latta Festival.
“I feel like we’ve been playing pretty well,” said Goostree, whose club is 26-8 after Tuesday’s split. “For the last couple of weeks we’ve been improving every game. The competition has gotten tougher, and we’ve risen to the level of our competition.
“We still need to run the bases better,” he said. “There are times when we’re not as aware as I would like us to be, but we’re getting better at it.”
Although Jennings has basically the same team that failed to reach the state tournament last spring, she said this year’s squad is doing things her 2010 team didn’t.
“We were solid last year defensively, but we just didn’t get some timely hits, and we’ve been doing that this year,” she explained.
Latta and Konawa will both be the top seeds in their 4A regionals, but while the second-ranked Lady Panthers will be hosting No. 5 Davis, No. 15 Pocola and No. 16 Warner, the fourth-ranked and defending state champion Lady Tigers (who opened the season ranked No. 1) will travel to Dale to take on the sixth-ranked Lady Pirates, No. 10 Wewoka and No. 18 Chisholm (Konawa’s first-round opponent at 2:15 p.m. Thursday).
“It should be a tough regional,” Latta coach Jim Foster said. “I don’t know a lot about Pocola (which faces Davis at 2:15 p.m. Thursday) and Warner (Latta’s first-round opponent at 1 p.m.), but Pocola is usually pretty good at slowpitch.
“We played Davis and beat them, but it was a while ago, and I’m sure they’re better,” he added. “I don’t know anything about Warner, but supposedly they played a 5A-6A schedule.”
Despite the loss in midseason of leading hitter and first baseman Keeli Kessinger to her second major knee injury in less than a year (after she played just three games), Foster’s club had been scoring runs in bunches before being held to five total runs and 11 hits in losses to Tupelo (3-1) and Sulphur (6-4) at home Tuesday.
“Up until today, I thought we were playing pretty good,” Foster said after Tuesday’s losses, which dropped the Lady Panthers — who have achieved their highest ranking in his 10 years as softball coach — to 23-8. “We’re battling a few injuries here and there — aches and pains mostly — and we just weren’t very good. I’m hoping that goes for today and not Thursday.
“We’ve been getting production throughout the lineup, but I don’t know if the bottom half even got a hit in two ballgames (Tuesday),” he added. “Consistency is the name of the game, and we were consistently bad (Tuesday).”