Richard Stroud

Grove Sun

With the OSSAA’s decision to implement a football-style district system for softball and baseball in Classes 5A and 6A, the 2011 regular season will take on a different look for teams.

Gone are the rankings done by the state’s coaches that previously determined playoff seedings. Now, where a team finishes in its district will determine where and who it will play during regionals. The rankings system had its flaws and there are undoubtedly those who will find fault with the new districts, but regardless, the new system will change how coaches approach their seasons.

Last August the Grove Lady Ridgerunners began their season unranked and head coach Jeremy Collins and his team felt the pressure to win as many games as they could and climb at least into the top eight in the rankings, which would have ensured a chance to host a regional tournament.

This year the Lady Ridgerunners will not face that pressure and Collins is looking at the non-district games as a time to rest pitcher Jesse Walker and perhaps try out changes to his lineup without the high stakes of playoff positioning riding on every game.

“Last year we were trying to climb up the ladder and maybe host a regional,” Collins said. “We were successful in that, but we had to pitch Jesse fairly often, thinking we had to win every single game. This year we’ll probably give her a little more rest so that she’s not tired for regionals.”

Now Collins and other coaches in the state’s two biggest classes will have to find a balance in non-district games between the short term and long term.

“It’s not that those [non-district] games don’t matter, but in the big picture, they’re not nearly as important as the district games. You never want to go into a game thinking it’s not important. Winning breeds success, so if you expect to win every time, it helps you in the long run. But we will adjust more than we did last year. You can experiment with a little more with your batting order, with your defensive alignment; just try to figure things out.”

District play will also not allow the Lady Ridgerunners to get off to the slow start they began 2010 with. Grove was 4-4 after two weeks of the season. Now the Lady Ridgerunners will hit the road to take on Tahlequah in the first week of the season and will travel to Pryor before the month of August is over. Both teams advanced to the state tournament last season.

“Starting off with Tahlequah the first week is not an ideal situation,” Collins said. “But we’ve got to play them some time and the schedule worked out. That was the date we both had open. The district games are going to be difficult.”

Along with those two teams, Collins expects a tough challenge from Skiatook, who the Lady Ridgerunners will host in mid-August.

“Those three teams are definitely top-quality teams. They’ll be really good again. They’re coaches do a good job. The east side is definitely the strong side of the state.”

In addition to the three state qualifiers in Grove’s district, the other district on the east side of the state will have McAlester and Coweta, two other teams that went to the state tournament last year who could be potential playoff opponents this year.

But that’s in the future. For now, the Lady Ridgerunners will have to make sure they’re ready for a new way of doing things.