For the most part, the 2021 high school baseball season, like most of its spring season counterparts, is a mystery to preview.
There wasn’t a 2020 campaign to look at as a measuring stick, save for a scant few games before all activities were shut down in early March.
It’s why a school like Oktaha has an advantage with the start of the campaign just two weeks away. The Tigers and other non-football schools had their fall season and they wound up reaching the state tournament for the fifth time in six seasons.
“There’s no doubt the fall gave us an advantage,” said Oktaha coach Kevin Rodden. “You look at these others and for some it’s been two years since some of their kids played at all.”
That has led to another push within the OSSAA membership to split fall baseball schools from football-playing schools for the spring baseball season. That is still in committee at this point.
“Personally speaking I don’t look for them to change anything,” Rodden said. “It’s like saying our basketball team isn’t as physical as a football team since we don’t play football, so we want our own basketball class. There’s a lot of different ways you can go about that argument, but I don’t think anything will come out of it myself.
“I know a lot of people talk about the fall-spring deal for schools like us who play both, but we work pretty hard anyway too, so it’s kind of one of those things that we’ll be ready to go whenever the bell rings. We weren’t’ sure for a while there was even going to be a fall season and COVID tripped us up for a couple of weeks to begin with (with quarantine).”
At Muskogee, Roughers coach Johnny Hutchens had nine starters back from a team that improved late in the year in 2019 and pulled a huge upset in a first-round playoff game against Stillwater before eventually being eliminated short of a state berth.
Hutchens graduated five of those starters.
“We felt like we had some momentum to build on,” Hutchens said. “Now, though, we’ve still got four four-year starters but a big unknown in those who didn’t get playing time last year stepping into the role of those seniors who didn’t get to have their season.
“I hesitate to call it a setback or an excuse for us, because no one had a season, you know? But I’m trying to look at it this way. These kids have been through so much over the course of the last year or so, dealing with distance learning, quarantines and such, that when we do get to play again I hope it will be more of a relief than anything for them just to play.”
At Hilldale, former Hornet Nathan Frisby was set to start his first season as coach, and only got three games in the books.
“We were coming into the year with a really young team and to have just three games really cut into my evaluation time,” he said. “Then we had no summer ball. I can’t say evaluating in practice isn’t some progress but it isn’t like competition.”
Fort Gibson coach Gary Edwards wasn’t new on the job, but had a young team.
“They didn’t get a chance to jell, and those of us who were in that situation with young teams, getting them to jell is going to be one of the biggest aspects as far as challenges,” he said. “On the bright side, we’ve got some good athletes and those kids won’t take long to adapt.”
Then, to have the winter assault of the past two weeks hit, it’s cut in to preseason scrimmage time everywhere.
Again, though, that assault has been equal opportunity statewide.
“So that’s not really going to be a disadvantage. Unless you have a turf field you’re not going to be able to get out until the first of the season,” Edwards said.
The Tigers do have artificial turf, which heats and melts the elements faster.
Here’s a look around the area as the season nears:
The Roughers will huddle around core four year starters: third baseman/pitcher Pryce Jackson, left fielder Antonio Zapata, center fielder Caleb Webb and pitcher Charles Mason. The Roughers were 3-2 at the stoppage point. Webb hit .420 as a sophomore and was All-Phoenix in 2019.
Infielders Colby Thompson and Evan Smith are two-year starters for the Hornets, who were 0-3 under first-year coach Nathan Frisby. Smith also threw for the Hornets. Pitching experience will also come from Austin Fletcher and Kielton Siedlik, who were in the rotation a year ago. Siedlik had 13 strikeouts in nine innings in the short 2020 season. Caynen David was off to the best start among returnees from a year ago, hitting .400 in 10 at-bats.
The Tigers have seven starters returning from a 2-3 start, four with two seasons in those spots, and they’re all juniors. Grant Edwards, Brody Rainbolt, who was Newcomer of the Year in 2019 with a 1.58 ERA, and Jaiden Graves will work in a mound rotation with Rainbolt also playing third, Edwards in the middle infield and Walkingstick likely at catcher although he can also plug in at second. Graves will go to the outfield if not throwing off the bump.
Cole Mahaney, Weston Rouse and freshman Wyatt Pierce also bring arms to the table, and Hunter Branch an outfield arm. Rouse as a freshman last year had two strong outings against Poteau and Sallisaw prior to the shutdown.
Wagoner in Benny Nail’s first season as the skipper was 1-4 but a group of nine with at least a partial year of experience hope materialize into a team that could match the state year of 2015.
There’s loads of athletes. Sawyer Jones at catcher has Darius McNack, Bristo Love and Chase Nanni as right-handed pitchers who are three-year starters. McNack is at first, Love at second and Nanni at third, where he was All-Phoenix in 2019 during a .400 year at the plate.
Four-year starter Hayden Price is a Connors State signee and one of eight starters back for the Wildcats, who got the most games in of anybody in a 2-6 start. Daylen Warrior at first and Brock Butler (.324 at the plate in 2019) at third are both three-year starters and Butler will also pitch. Catcher Clancy Campbell, designated hitter Andrew Arden and outfielder Colten Burnett are two-year starters. Kayson Flud and Blaine Smith have started in multiple spots (utility pitcher). Coach Tom Butler will get a hand from former Wildcat standout Caleb Knight, now awaiting Double-A assignment when the minors begin their year after a year on the shelf.
The Tigers returned to the fall state tournament for the fifth time in six seasons after seeing the streak end in 2019. Jakob Blackwell is the ace of the pitching staff. He scattered six hits while striking out 10 in a 3-0 loss to Canute in the Class A quarterfinals last October. Mason Ledford, Hunter Dearman, Brody Surmont, Tyler Allen and Gabe Hamilton were a solid 2-6 in the batting order. Oktaha is 2A in the spring.
Everette McAnally resumes the reins as coach after Frank Marsaln coached last spring. The Haymakers were off to a 4-1 start when things stopped, but lost several key players. Back are two sophomore pitchers, Layne Mann and Peter Turner. Brannon Westmooreland is also a moundsman when not at shortstop.
Pitcher Jackson Cole (2-0 to start 2020, 2.47 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings) and first baseman Cole Phillips are four-year starters. Phillips was off to a .462 start in seven games a year ago at the plate. Brandon Welch adds another arm while not playing center field and joins catcher Kaleb Brewer as three-year starters. Mason Plunk at short and Blake Cole at second had seven games as middle infielders a year ago. The Pirates were off to a 4-3 start under Jared Webster last year.
Tye Pippinger topped .400 as a sophomore making All-Phoenix. He’ll throw and play infield for the Ironheads, who were 0-2 before the shutdown.