For most of this decade, Roff, Latta and Tupelo have had a lot in common.
Since 2003, the three small-school heavyweights have combined for eight state titles (three each from Latta and Tupelo and two from Roff), and they been among the most dominant small-school baseball programs in Oklahoma. This week, though, the Tigers, Panthers and Tigers share almost no common ground as they try to earn what, for all three schools, has become a tradition — a trip to next week’s state tournament.
Roff — 30-2 and ranked No. 1 in Class B all season — will be an overwhelming favorite at home against No. 9 New Lima, No. 15 Stuart and unranked Asher; Latta, No. 8 in Class A, will be the second seed in a deep regional that includes No. 9 Sterling, No. 14 Rock Creek and the host Pirates, who are ranked No. 2; and Tupelo — the defending Class B state champion but 12-19 this fall after suffering wholesale graduation losses — will be a longshot at Red Oak, where the host Eagles (ranked No. 2) will be a heavy favorite against the Tigers (ranked No. 10 despite their record), Caney and Whitesboro.
And, while Roff is expected to cruise into the state tournament as the top seed in Class B, Latta and Tupelo will be outsiders to head to Oklahoma City next week in anything but the loser’s bracket.
Latta will be the first local squad in action, facing Sterling in Thursday’s second game of the Dale regional at 3:45, and Tupelo will play its first game at Red Oak at 5 p.m. Roff won’t start its regional until Friday, when the Tigers face Asher at 2 p.m. The winners of the first two games at each regional will square off in the late game the same day for the championship, and one of the losers will have to win two games on Day 2 to earn the second state tournament berth out of the regional.
“I haven’t seen New Lima, but I’ve seen Asher and Stuart,” said Roff coach Ead Simon, who has missed the state tournament just once since taking over the Tiger baseball program and whose young club finished second to the veteran Tupelo squad in last fall’s Class B title game. “No matter who we’re playing, we just try to do what we do well. We just try to worry about what we’re doing and not worry so much about who we’re playing
“We try to scout and prepare, but we don’t bombard ourselves with what the other team is doing,” he added. “We just try to do what we do and beat them with what we do.”
What the Tigers have been doing for much of the second half of the season is beat some of the state’s top teams and beat up on just about everybody else on their schedule. Roff boasts two wins apiece over Class A No. 1 Silo and Class B No. 2 Red Oak (the team that run-ruled the Tigers, 15-5, in the Class B championship game this spring), and Simon said he doesn’t see a lot of holes in his still-youthful squad heading into the second round of the playoffs.
"Our pitchers’ velocity is really good right now, and lately we’ve finishing off teams and getting that big inning,” he noted. “We’ve made big strides in our discipline at the plate, and I think our pitchers have made strides and gotten better.”
Roff has easily the deepest pitching staff in Oklahoma this fall, headed by Blake Logan (the ace of the staff with a 9-1 record last spring) and Tupelo move-in Brendan McCurry, who are a combined 12-0 and who have both beaten Silo and Red Oak. Fellow juniors Aaron Cornell and Dayne Parker are also among the state’s best, and the team’s fifth starter, Caleb Burrows, is 6-0.
“Blake and Brendan seem to be getting better every week,” Simon said. “That’s our goal every day. I told them at the start of the season that we just want to get better every day, and I think we have for the most part.”
Simon said he has also been surprised by the chemistry on a team that boasts so many stars, and he said Logan, Cornell and Parker — who, as sophomores, were among the leaders of Roff teams that finished second in Class B in both the fall and spring — all believe they have some unfinished business.
“I think we kind of have a chip on our shoulder,” Simon explained. “Last year we were runner-up twice. The defining thing with this bunch is will they seal the deal and finally finish what they started.
“At the start of the season, everybody was saying we would have a lot of egos on this team, but these kids have gotten along great,” he said. “We have really good team chemistry, and that part of it is better than I expected. We haven’t had any internal problems. I’ve had a lot of teams where you couldn’t say that.”
At Dale, Latta is part of a field where each of the other three teams is a potential pothole on the Panthers’ road to Oklahoma City. In fact, Dale and rock Creek have combined to hand Latta (18-9) more than half its losses this fall.
Still, veteran coach Eddie Collins said his team has a decent chance to not only survive the regional but to win it.
“We have to play better than we’ve played to have a chance to come out of it — there are two teams in there we’ve lost to five times this year,” said Collins, whose clubs won three straight Class 2A spring titles between 2003 and 2005 and who is looking for his fifth straight (fall and spring) state tournament berth this week. “We’ve had spurts where we’ve hit it pretty good, but we have to pitch it better and catch it better.
“That being said, if we play well, we can win two games Thursday,” he added. “If we get after it, we’ve got a good chance to play next week; if we don’t, it will be a struggle. We can’t give away runs. In the playoffs, pitching and defense win more games than anything.”
Although Latta was a combined 0-5 against Dale and Rock Creek this fall, two of the losses to the Pirates were by 6-4 scores, and the Panthers’ two losses to the Mustangs were both 5-4 heartbreakers. Collins said his team — which has been without key players for all or part of the season while facing one of the state’s toughest schedules — is finally in one piece.
“With the schedule we’ve played, if you’re not real good on any day you can look bad,” he said. “Of all the games we’ve played, in over half of them we haven’t had the team we’re going to put on the field for the playoffs. There’s always been a piece missing.”
Collins said Tyler Reeves — his staff ace since the spring of 2007 but coming off a couple of rocky starts at the end of the season — or Mike Hood will pitch Thursday’s opener, with junior Wacey Henderson or freshman Taylor Dunigan also candidates to start the Panthers’ second game, whenever it is. Henderson missed about a third of the season with a rib injury, while Hood has been Latta’s most reliable starter lately after missing the spring with a shoulder injury.
Like Latta, Tupelo has history with a couple of the teams the Tigers will face this week. Red Oak has eight starters back from the team that rallied to beat the heavily favored Tigers, 12-11, in the Class B semifinals this spring, and Caney is 3-1 against Tupelo this fall.
Tupelo coach Clay Weller, who, like Simon, has taken nine straight teams to the state tournament dating back to the fall of 2003, said he expected to be at Red Oak for the regional, adding that his young squad will need to play well to advance to Oklahoma City again.
“Just from looking at the locations of the winners of the district, I thought we’d probably end up at Red Oak,” he said. “Obviously, I don’t think we can beat Red Oak up there, but I think we have a chance against those other two teams. We beat Caney (the Tigers’ opening-round opponent) 2-0 the second time we played them, then we lost a doubleheader at their place, 8-7 and 11-8.”
Sophomore Jake Sanders, who pitched the shutout in the Tupelo’s win over Caney, will get the call again Thursday.
“Hopefully, he’ll go out there and give us a chance to win,” Weller said of Sanders, who has also been one of the team’s top hitters from his leadoff spot in the batting order. “If we show up offensively, we have a good chance, but we’re not getting much production out of the bottom of our order right now.”
While Tupelo’s 5-through-9 hitters have struggled lately, the top of the order — Sanders, Jeremy Stein (the team’s only senior) and freshmen Brandon Maggia and Matt Benedict have carried most of the offensive load. That quartet combined for 10 of the Tigers’ 12 hits and 12 RBIs in an 18-2 rout of Stringtown that wrapped up Tupelo’s 22nd straight district title.
“A couple of weeks ago, I though we were playing pretty well ... since then, I haven’t been very pleased with the way we’re playing,” Weller said. “We haven’t been consistent defensively and at the plate. Our pitching has been good enough to win games, but we haven’t been very good in those other areas. Obviously, we’ll have to play better if we’re going to have a chance this week.”
And, although the Tigers are having a down year by recent standards, Weller said his team figures to bring out the best in Caney and Whitesboro simply on reputation alone.
“We’re spoiled around here getting to go to the state tournament every year, but what our kids have to realize is that those other two teams haven’t been there in awhile, so we’ll have a little bit of a bullseye on our backs,” he explained. “I would hope our kids would go play well. After 31 games, you would think you’d be able to judge this team, but, truthfully, I have no idea how we’ll play.”
For most of this decade, Roff, Latta and Tupelo have had a lot in common.
This Week's Circulars
- Two seriously injured in separate icy mishaps
- Summers sentenced to life without parole
- Charges filed in jail beating case
- Submerged vehicle found in Roff City Lake
- UPDATE: No one found in submerged car
- Series of unfortunate events leads to sickening ECU loss
- Stratford girls shock host Vanoss
- Chickasaw Lighthorse Dive Team completes open water certification
- Roff boys spend weekend defeating two ranked foes
- Big day for Benedict in Murray state opener