Three Rivers’ quest for a championship in tournament play at Elk City this weekend ended with a denial by Mother Nature.
It’s a fitting end, all things considered.
The 18-under Bandits were a Legion team without a Legion connection anywhere in the state this year, and so even before the weekend trip to Elk City, they knew this was their last hope for a championship of any kind.
Checotah pitcher Zack Mullen’s four-inning no-hitter in a 10-0 win over the Southwest Shockers, coupled with a cancellation of a Wednesday matchup at Bartlesville, has brought the summer baseball season to a close. The game was one of two semifinals in the Arnold Lankford Classic, but rain kept the championship from being played.
There’s also no state tournament this year in Oklahoma American Legion. Last year’s was canceled due to the pandemic, and this year the state association had no chairman due to the death of Warren “Dee” Wilson in June 2020, and a subsequent struggle to fill that post, according to Three Rivers coach Mike Whitten.
The teams playing legion ball have dwindled in recent years. When Three Rivers won its first state title in 2019 after numerous runner-up finishes, the tournament was a three-team affair involving one team from both Ardmore and Ada.
“We had an option of going straight to regionals but the dates are late and interfere with the start of Oktaha’s fall season,” said Whitten, referring to a handful of Oktaha players on his roster.
Others this season hailed from Warner and Checotah as well as Wister, Stigler and Lincoln Christian.
Whitten said he talked with a part-time major league scout at the tournament this past weekend who has indicated an interest in taking the leadership of the state association, saying he was told by the man that he is in ongoing conversations about it. He could not recall his name.
“I felt pretty negative about the future of it until I had the conversation with him,” Whitten said. “I hope it works out. I know there’s teams out there that are willing to come back, including teams that left (prior to 2019).”
When it comes to area summer league baseball for high school-age kids or those about to enter college, American Legion is one of the few that have an end game in terms of playing for an actual title.
Area baseball players are scattered. Some are part of school-based teams playing in informal leagues. Most teams are constructed for showcase events. Younger teams out of Love-Hatbox can compete in OK Kids and go on to other regional and national events, and former Muskogee High baseball coach Johnny Hutchens has had a Rays organization of baseball and softball select teams sanctioned under the Little League umbrella through the senior-age divisions. Limited teams in that organization statewide require short treks to get to a regional, sometimes playing just one other team.
In 2019, the Bandits made their first regional trip, competing in Hastings, Nebraska. Whitten hopes there’s an avenue to get there in 2022, and has plans to increase the number of area players, which saw an increase this year after having seasons of more Tulsa-area kids.
Whitten took over the team when longtime coach Rusty Fulps died. Whitten was Fulps’ assistant. The team was originally based out of Wagoner, but has had kids from throughout the area.
On Sunday, in the finale for 2021, Mullen struck out nine in four innings and walked three, and the Bandits (25-8) made the most of six hits against the Shockers, another former Legion team.
Harley Shaffer (Oktaha) had a bases-loaded triple in the third to make it 9-0. Kip Christian (Oktaha) singled in the run-rule RBI. Christian had four RBIs with two on an error in the third and another on a walk in the second.
On Saturday, Oktaha’s Jakob Blackwell allowed just three hits and struck out 10 over a five-inning run-rule win for Three Rivers on Saturday in Elk City as the Bandits beat the DFW Prospects 9-0.
Blackwell retired nine of his first 10, allowing his first hit in the third. Meanwhile, a five-run first and a four-run fourth gave Three Rivers all its runs.
Chase Hudson’s two-run triple sparked things in the first and Shaffer ripped a two-run double as part of the fourth inning outburst. Hudson (Lincoln Christian) overall was 3-for-3 and the lone Bandit with multiple hits.