Not only is Checotah unfamiliar with state tournament atmospheres, it knows nothing about the other teams in the eight-team Class 4A field.
That’s fine, say the Wildcats, who have played grounded in faith all season as they prepare to meet Byng at 6:30 p.m. today in the quarterfinal round at Edmond Santa Fe High School.
That’s faith in themselves and, well, something much bigger than the game they’re playing in, as witnessed by those at their regional final last Sunday.
One out away from punching their state ticket with a 6-0 victory against Metro Christian, the team watched as the home plate umpire stopped the game and bent over in what looked much more serious than what wound up being overcome by the heat.
“Throughout game I noticed he wasn’t doing well,” said Checotah outfielder Mark Miles. “He was bending over a lot and we were trying to pay attention to what was going on with him.”
The game was stopped as the umpire got some water and ice. Wildcats coach Tom Butler nudged Miles.
“He’s a guy who you would say is a spiritual leader on this team, so I asked him if he thought the guy needed prayer.”
Miles never hesitated as his team gathered around the stricken umpire.
The act was not lost on the crowd — not the Checotah faithful nor the fans of Metro Christian, a Roman Catholic school in Tulsa — who applauded it and the umpire, who would soon return to finish the game.
“My parents taught me how to act and stuff. I attend Rhema Bible Church in Broken Arrow where we used to live (his father took a job running a church camp in the community of Pierce, just outside Checotah). My youth pastors are really good. Because of them I’m not afraid to go out and pray for people in a situation like that. I know it works.”
The note about the incident on the Muskogee Phoenix Sports’ Facebook page has had over 1,300 hits — more than twice that of any previous post on the site.
Miles’ influence has been felt going back to the summer and workouts. It’s common for the players now to remind each other if they need to pray for anything.
“It’s a whole team thing,” said pitcher/catcher and senior Caleb Knight. “We take pride in it and it’s a good example of what we are and what we plan to be in our lives.”
In the short term, there’s this weekend, starting with Byng, which brings a seven-game win streak into tonight’s contest. The Wildcats have endured a little craziness that comes with their accomplishments in a 28-7 season and this next step.
“It’s definitely been a lot different. I’m getting ready to graduate and everybody is making a big deal out of this,” said Knight.
Knight is third on the team in hitting at .431 and leads the team in extra base hits with 21, including a three-run home run in the regional title game. Miles, in his first year on the varsity, is hitting .404.
Knight (7-0, 1.94 ERA) along with Jack Christian (9-1, 2.61) have been the 1-2 punch on the mound but may get some help this weekend, if not on the mound at the plate. Andrew Sands is the team leader in batting (.490) but has missed some playoff games due to an elbow injury. He was a designated hitter on Sunday. He was 6-0 on the mound in 35 innings this year with a 0.00 ERA.
“They’ve all grown up together, they love each other and that’s huge to me more than anything,” Butler said. “They play well together as a group and it’s one of those unique situations where you sense something special.
“I won’t say this is a surprise to me what they’ve accomplished. But at a place where it’s never been done, you never know but it’s been our goal with this bunch.”
As a catcher, Knight knows what an advantage it is to be familiar with the other squad’s bats. That advantage isn’t there with no knowledge of Byng (27-7) or any potential opponent.
Checotah is OK going on blind faith.
“Not knowing anything about anybody, you don’t go in defeated in your mind if they’re really good or overestimating someone if you think you’re better,” Knight said. “We’ll just go in with the right mindset and play like we know how to.”
At Edmond Santa Fe
Game 1: Bethany vs. Catoosa, 11 a.m.
Game 2: Tuttle vs. Cushing, 1:30 p.m.
Game 3: Elgin vs. Dewey, 4 p.m.
Game 4: Checotah vs. Byng, 6:30 p.m.
At Edmond Santa Fe
Game 5: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 5 p.m.
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner. 7:30 p.m.
At Bricktown Ballpark
Game 7: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 5 p.m.