By BEN JOHNSON
Paired with Randee O'Donnell, Whitney Wright was part of an elite left side of the infield in Class 5A softball. Not too many balls made their way past O'Donnell and Wright and into left field.
But that all changed this season.
Wright's services were needed at catcher, so Tahlequah coach Matt Cloud moved his sure-handed senior third baseman behind the plate. Coupled with that move was Lainey Wallace's relocation from right field to third base.
It wasn't ideal for Cloud, but he had to do it.
"Whitney and Lainey were thrown into a tough spot when kids left us in August," Cloud said. "They both have settled in to their roles and both have exceeded my expectations. It's tough as a senior to be asked to move positions, but they were very mature about it and accepted their roles."
The move has paid dividends for Cloud and the Lady Tigers. Tahlequah is 36-4 with Wright and Wallace at their new posts for most of the season.
For Wright, the position switch was unforeseen, but she knew she could handle it.
"Catching has never been a main position for me, but it's definitely something I can do," Wright said. "My mom and aunt were both catchers, so I had it in me, I guess."
Cloud said he wrestled with the decision to move Wright from third base, knowing that he'd be breaking up such a strong tandem with O'Donnell.
"I was a little apprehensive at first," he said, "but with her athletic ability, the switch was really pretty easy and smooth."
With Wright behind the plate, both Tahlequah pitchers Lindsay Wade (1.23) and Morgan Tarrance (1.13) are sporting earned run averages below two.
"The transition wasn't hard for me," Wright said. "Of course, I had to learn the pitches, but we practice situations every day and I already knew what to do by memory."
By moving Wallace from right field to third base, Cloud was eliminating the strongest arm in his outfield. But Wallace was his only viable option to play at the hot corner in the infield.
"Lainey has done an absolutely great job at third this year," Cloud said of Wallace, who has a fielding percentage of .958 through 40 games this season.
"It's a tough spot to be moved to with hard hit balls, bunt defenses and slappers, but she settled in and I think she gets more confident there every day."
Wallace, a senior, said the change of scenery was quite unusual.
"It was a little change because I was used to just getting fly balls," Wallace said, "and now I'm getting ground balls hit at me. It's just a matter of focus out there."
When asked if they could play their original positions or the ones they were moved to, both Wright and Wallace had different responses.
"If I had to pick, I'd choose third base," Wright said. "I've always liked playing that position, and I've practiced it for a long time. I like the corner action."
Said Wallace: "Honestly, I would stay where I am at because of the fact that it is the hot spot of the field, and it is challenging for me. But I love challenges."
Speaking of daunting tasks, that's what awaits Tahlequah on Thursday in the first round of the Class 5A state tournament. The Lady Tigers will take on Chickasha at 5 p.m. in Shawnee.
In Chickasha, Tahlequah will play the team that eliminated it from the state tournament last year in the first round.
"I think it is a little revenge because they did best us out last year," Wallace said.
Tahlequah will enter the state tournament hoping to repeat what it did in the 2011 state tournament: reach the final game.
Wright explained what it could possibly take to do that again.
"We are gonna take it inning by inning, play by play," she said. "We have done everything we can to prepare ourselves for it. And now it's here."
Class 5A state tournament
All games on Field 2 at The Ball Fields at Firelake in Shawnee
Game 1: Collinsville (24-17) vs. Deer Creek (29-7), 11 a.m.
Game 2: MacArthur (24-13) vs. Carl Albert (32-1), 1 p.m.
Game 3: Claremore (26-9) vs. Duncan (31-6), 3 p.m.
Game 4: Tahlequah (36-4) vs. Chickasha (28-5), 5 p.m.
Game 5: Game 1 winner vs. Game 3 winner, noon.
Game 6: Game 2 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 2 p.m.
Game 7: Championship game, 1:30 p.m.