By BEN JOHNSON
It’s a feeling that never loses its luster to Matt Cloud. Winning a regional championship is something he never wants to become numb to.
“I don’t think it ever gets old,” he said. “I think, sometimes, we take it a little bit for granted, and I try to reiterate to these kids that there are a lot of teams that never get to experience that.”
Sallisaw, Fort Gibson and Stilwell are just a small sample of Class 6A schools that won’t get the joy of playing in the state tournament this season. All thanks to 6A No. 2 Tahlequah.
The Lady Tigers went unscathed on Thursday and posted three victories in regional tournament play at Lady Tiger Field. A blowout of Sallisaw, 18-2, and a sweep of Stilwell, 6-2 and 14-3, helped Tahlequah win the championship and pick up its 21st straight berth into the state tournament.
“I’m pretty excited,” Tahlequah senior Chloe Barker said. “...Hopefully we can go all the way and win a state tournament this time.”
Tahlequah will return to Oklahoma City’s ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, where it lost to Union in the first round of the state tournament last season.
The Lady Tigers carried a 13-game winning streak into last season’s final day, and this year they will sport a 22-game spotless streak, having not lost since April 4 against Class A Red Oak.
The two victories over Stilwell capped a week in which Tahlequah (37-2) beat the Lady Indians four times. The final contest — the regional clincher — was never a game after the first half inning.
As the visiting team, Tahlequah rattled off seven hits in the opening frame, which included run-scoring hits by Randee O’Donnell, Kirsten Chase, Whitney Wright, Marisa Girdner and Erin Dillard. Bub Peters also contributed a RBI on a sacrifice fly to right field.
Fifteenth-ranked Stilwell — which went 0-5 against Tahlequah this season — was never able to recover. Kara Muskrat drove in Jamie Marshall on a double down the left-field line in the first inning, but the Lady Indians’ brief rally ended after that.
Tahlequah scored two more in the second on a Chase single and a sacrifice fly by Kortney Dry. And six more runs by Tahlequah in the third inning all but delayed the inevitable, with the run-rule not instituted until the fifth inning.
Despite coasting to three triumphs, there was a resounding feeling by Cloud and his players that the regional games were merely a formality. Sure, Tahlequah won, but everyone in the Tahlequah clubhouse was less than satisfied with the effort put forth.
“I think the mindset of everyone is kind of like, ‘let’s skip this and go straight to state,’” said Britney Johnson, Tahlequah’s senior center fielder. “We’re all ready for state, so we did play a little slow today. It was just kind of a ‘we don’t want to be here, let’s go to state’ attitude.”
Tahlequah spent the majority of its season playing mostly ranked teams, going 27-2 in the those games. The Lady Tigers also went 11-2 against top-five teams.
Cloud said playing highly-qualified teams all season could be the cause of cruise-control mode come regional-tournament time.
“That’s a test to the strength of our schedule,” he said. “...I think we came out flat, knowing that — with no disrespect — that we were supposed to win.
“We did good, but we could have done better. That’s what I told them after the game. Told them, ‘don’t think I’m not happy, because I am. But we could have been sharper.’”
State tournament pairings and times will be posted at a later date, but there’s a solid possibility that Tahlequah will take on 6A No. 8 Broken Arrow in the opening round on Wednesday.
“They’re going to be great on offense; they always are,” said Cloud, who had a regular-season game against Broken Arrow rained out last week. “At this point, anything can happen on Wednesday.”
Tahlequah 6, Stilwell 2
Two Tahlequah errors led to two Stilwell runs in the first inning, and the Lady Tigers followed by tying the game up in the bottom half of the frame on a sacrifice fly by Chase and a RBI ground out by Dry.
Tahlequah would take the lead for good in the second inning on Dillard’s run-scoring ground out.
The Lady Tigers tacked on three more runs in the fifth inning, which was highlighted by Chase’s two-run double and Wright’s RBI single.
Tahlequah 18, Sallisaw 2
The Lady Tigers opened the game with six runs in the first inning. They pulled off the same feat again in the fifth inning.
Peters recorded a team-high five RBI — one on a single in the first inning, two on a single in the fourth and two on a triple in the fifth.
O’Donnell piled up four RBI on a two-run triple in the first inning and a two-run home run in the fourth.
Dry also drove in four runs.