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Konawa Tigers softball in the state tournament at the National Softball Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City Tuesday, May 12, 2009. (Photo by Richard R. Barron)

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Somebody at the Oklahoma Secondary Sports Activities Association obviously has a soft spot for Konawa softball coach Jennifer Matthews and her team. The powers-that-be in the OSSAA seem to like the Lady Tigers so much, in fact, that they’re almost giving them a chance to play in a mini-Class 4A state tournament the week before the Big Show officially begins in Oklahoma City.

After being ranked in the top five all season (including the next-to-last-week at No. 1), compiling a 24-8 record against 4A’s toughest schedule and finishing the season at No. 2 in the rankings, Konawa was rewarded with a two-hour trip to Okemah Thursday to compete in one of Oklahoma’s deepest regional tournaments in any class.

In addition to the Lady Tigers, the four-team field includes No. 6 Tushka, No. 10 Okemah and a Haskell team that dropped out of the top eight in the rankings on the final week of the season and finished at No. 11.

“I figured we would go toward Haskell (for the regional), but I didn’t expect that mixture of teams,” Matthews admitted when asked about her draw. “Numbers-wise, we haven’t been to a tougher regional since I’ve been here, but we’ve had some tough ones. This time of year, you have to beat them anyway.

“I know that Haskell is pretty good — I think they lost 4-3 to (No. 1) Colbert, and they’ve played a good schedule; Tushka can hit it pretty well, and Okemah is always solid,” added Matthews, whose club will open regional play against Haskell at 2:15 p.m. Thursday. “We’re playing on a 300-foot field, and that could be to our advantage if we hit line drives, because we’re aggressive on the bases. We should be able to get some extra bases, and defensively we’ve got good enough arms and cover enough ground in the outfield that we should be fine.”

Konawa is one of seven area softball teams — five of them ranked in the top 10 in their respective classes — who will compete this week for one of two state tournament berths in five regionals.

Elsewhere in Class 4A, No. 7 Latta will travel to Dale, where the No. 4 Lady Pirates are the top seed in a strong four-team field that also includes No. 18 Chisholm and No. 19 Stroud; No. 6 Roff will host No. 4 Sterling, No. 10 Sasakwa (the two-time defending Class B fast-pitch state champion, the team that eliminated Roff at both the slowpitch and fast-pitch state tournaments in 2009 and the Lady Tigers’ opponent in their regional opener at 1 p.m. Thursday) and No. 15 Stonewall in arguably the strongest regional, top to bottom, in Class 2A; and Class A No. 4 Tupelo will be the favorite against No. 5 Coleman, No. 12 Indiahoma and unranked Big Pasture (the Lady Tigers’ opponent at noon Thursday) at Davis in one of the few regionals played at a neutral site.

Sulphur, which finished the season ranked No. 16, will be the low seed in Class 5A’s toughest regional. The Lady Bulldogs will travel to Purcell to face the host Lady Dragons (ranked No. 2 and Sulphur’s first-round opponent at 1 p.m.), No. 7 Blackwell and No. 10 Blanchard.

In contrast to Konawa’s regional draw, the other three teams in the top four in 4A face much easier playoff scenarious this week. While Dale has just one top-15 team (Latta) at its regional, No. 1 Colbert will be the top seed at Hartshorne against teams ranked No. 8 (Pocola), No. 14 (Liberty) and No. 16 (Hartshorne), and No. 3 Mangum will visit Washington to face the No. 5 Lady Warriors, No. 13 Frederick and No. 17 Fairview.   

Konawa spent just one week ranked No. 1 and dropped out of the top spot after losing three of four games on the final week of the season, but all three losses — like all of the Lady Tigers’ defeats this season — were to top-five teams, including walkoff road losses to Washington (which had upset 6A No. 1 Moore earlier in the week) and Purcell.

Three of the eight blemishes on Konawa’s record this spring were put there by Purcell, and besides Washington and Dale (which beat Konawa, 14-4, nine days ago), the Lady Tigers also split two games with 2A No. 2 Davenport and lost to 5A No. 1 Bethel twice. Matthews said that, despite its depth, this week’s regional is no tougher than the schedule her veteran club has been facing all year.

“We’ve seen just about every situation possible, so we should be ready for anything that comes our way,” she said. “That’s why we play the schedule we do — so we can be prepared for the playoffs.”

“If we do the little things like we’re supposed to do, everything else will fall into place — at this point in time, if we play like we’re capable of, we’re going to be extremely tough to beat,” Matthews added. “"We’re probably position-by-position defensively better than anyone in our class, and if we break loose hitting-wise, we’re also as good as anybody, and we’re capable of that.”    

While Konawa stumbled a bit down the stretch, old rival Latta finished the season on the upswing. The Lady Panthers have been one of the hottest offensive teams in their class over the past few weeks, and they bounced back from an 8-7 loss to Tupelo Monday with a 13-6 victory over 5A No. 11 Chandler Tuesday.

“We’re starting to put things together, and the bottom of the lineup is starting to hit,” Latta coach Jim Foster said Tuesday after seeing his club — which was under .500 for much of the season — improve to 17-12 heading into the regional. “The teams we’re playing from here on out, you have to get hits throughout the lineup.

“The regional is pretty favorable for us (to advance),” he said. “Konawa got the toughest one. The two teams that are in with us and Dale are teams we should be able to beat if we play well. From what I hear about Dale, they’re the real thing, but if we can get out in front and put some pressure on them, we’ll have a chance. If they get in front of us early, it could be a short game.”

While the Latta offense — led by sophomore first baseman Keeli Kessinger, who has 19 home runs this spring — has been hitting on all cylinders, the defense is a little bit of a question mark after committing six errors Tuesday.

“We did little stuff wrong against Chandler that we’ve worked on all year long,” Foster said. “That’s stuff we’re going to try to get rid of by Thursday. We just want to compete and give ourselves a chance to win.”

Jason Goostree, who took over the Tupelo softball program last fall, will be trying to extend a streak of four straight appearances by the Lady Tigers at the slowpitch state tournament.

“It’s about what I expected,” Goostree said of being sent to Davis for his regional. “If you play at home, you have to get the field ready, and you don’t have to do that on the road, so there are advantages both ways. There are so many teams out west with no regional to go to, this was a good solutions with two teams from the east (Tupelo and Coleman) and two from the west meeting in the middle.”

Like Latta, Tupelo (20-5) has been on a late-season roll, with the offense leading the way. Monday’s victory over the Lady Panthers was the 14th in their last 16 games for the Lady Tigers (with both losses to a red-hot Dale squad at the Stonewall tournament earlier this month) since they dropped a baffling 13-1 decision to Stonewall on March 30.

“I guess after you look at it, it looks like a wake-up call, but we weren’t playing that great before that game,” Goostree said of the Stonewall loss. “We just hadn’t gotten to play a lot before that. Since then, we’ve gotten to play a lot more regularly, and it’s a lot easier to hit a slowpitch softball when you get to do it a lot.”

Tupelo has one of the most dangerous lineups in Class A, and Goostree said his defense has been good enough during the the Lady Tigers’ recent hot streak.

“Before (the Stonewall game), it had been one or two people one game and one or two different people in another game, but lately we’ve been getting hitting up and down the lineup,” he explained. “Instead of giving ourselves a chance to score in two or three innings, we have a chance now to score in five or six innings, and that gives us a chance to put a lot more pressure on people.

“Defensively, we have our moments,” Goostree added. “If we can ever put seven innings together defensively, we can be pretty tough. We’re in a pretty good rhythm offensively, and defensively we make most of the plays — but I would like us to make all the plays.”

Goostree said he doesn’t know a lot about the other two teams in his regional, but Tupelo has beaten old rival Coleman twice this season (6-5 in eight innings and 12-2 one day later en route to a runner-up finish at the Stonewall Tournament) as part of one of Oklahoma’s toughest small-school schedules.

“We’ve played 13 games against top-20, seven against top-10 and three against top-five teams,” Goostree noted. “When you play good people, they expose what you don’t do well. We’ve had a chance to be exposed, and we’ve worked on that stuff, so that’s one of the benefits of playing a tough schedule.”

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