By BEN JOHNSON
Baseball in Class 5A was a mystery wrapped inside of an enigma in 2013. The known facts were easy: Claremore and Carl Albert were in a league of their own, and schools like Capitol Hill, East Central, Northwest Classen and Central were going to struggle to combine for 10 wins.
Everything else was a total coin flip.
For instance, Coweta being a 5A semifinalist was something very few saw coming. Tahlequah coach Nick Zodrow wishes it could of been his team in that position.
“Our main goal was to get to the state tournament and see what happens,” Zodrow said. “[Coweta advancing that far] just shows you that if we had gotten there, anything could have happened.”
It’s entirely possible. After all, in two of its three games against Coweta this season, Tahlequah played to within a run of its District 5A-3 foe.
That goes for the regional championship at Memorial High School, too. Tahlequah was on the verge of tying things up with Coweta when Tahlequah’s Austin Riley was doubled off second base to end the game and Tahlequah’s rally in the bottom of the seventh inning in a 7-6 loss.
The difference between a state-tournament qualifier and a spectator in the final week of the season was razor thin in 5A.
“A few pieces fell out of the puzzle for us,” Zodrow said, reflecting back on his team’s 13-21 season. “But I still thought we were good enough to get to the state tournament.”
The Tigers spent most of the season riding a roller coaster. Tahlequah played .500 ball up until its trip to Pensacola, Fla., for the Aggie Classic over spring break. The 1-4 trip, coupled with three straight losses when it arrived back on Oklahoma soil, ensured it would be an uphill climb to .500 for Tahlequah.
“It was up and down, and we never really got in a groove,” Zodrow said. “We never really found our stride until we got to regionals.”
That’s a good time to find it.
After dropping their opener to Memorial, the Tigers rallied to win two straight games to find themselves two more victories away from the state tournament.
However, those triumphs never surfaced and it was another premature postseason exit for Tahlequah.
Zodrow, who completed his fourth season as Tahlequah’s coach, said: “Record-wise, it was a little disappointing (this season), but we everything that transpired and how it went down, I thought our guys ended on a high note.”
For Lane Cobb, Logan Lewis and Connor Mutzig, it is a trio of Tahlequah careers that end without a trip to the state tournament. Now comes the hard part for the Tigers: finding new faces to fill the voids left at catcher (Cobb), center field (Lewis) and first base (Mutzig).
“We really have some big shoes to fill in all three of those spots,” Zodrow said. “Those guys also filled big spots in the middle of the lineup.
“Connor did a great job at first base; he did a great job of getting better from year to year. And when you have a guy that’s caught every game for four years, finding someone to handle that is tough. We’ll have to find a guy to do that.”
Returning for the Tigers in 2014 will be Colby Brittain (right field/pitcher), Houston Glad (pitcher/infielder), Riley, Jordan Blalock, Ben Stacey, Ryan Sanders and Brock Mitchell. That core group of Tigers will begin preparations for next season by this time next week.
“We’re taking this week off, and then we’ll start bringing up some eighth graders and start playing,” Zodrow said. “There’s a couple of guys in that group that can play, and I’ve always said, ‘if you can play, then you’ll definitely play for us.’”