May 8—FORT GIBSON — Finally, Gary Edwards could talk about it.
After overcoming some early-game adversity, his Fort Gibson Tigers took control of the game and went on to 10-2 Class 4A regional championship round win over the Stigler Panthers in front of a packed Carr-O'Dell Tiger Field on Friday night.
For Edwards, it's his 14th ticket to state, including three years as a player at Sperry and then as an assistant or head coach at McAlester and then Oologah. For his Tigers, it's the first trip since a 4-1 quarterfinal loss in 2011 to Heritage Hall.
And this time, with no seniors.
But on this night, Edwards' mind harkened back to last year's six seniors who saw a promising season end in early March 2020 due to COVID-19.
"I want everyone to understand that I felt really bad about the kids who were here last year, who just were starting to roll in the system we had, and I thought they might be in the same situation we are now because we'd beaten two really good teams in Poteau and Sallisaw," he said.
"This group has worked hard, from 6 a.m. workouts all from August through February, some even with other seasons going on, and also all the numerous times at night they'd be in the batting cage. This is a tribute to them and their work ethic. I only wish those six could have been here to be a part of this."
Fort Gibson (32-3) had to answer a few early shots from the Panthers (29-11), including a rare pick-off of the typically aggressive Tiger baserunners. Pitcher Caleb Eakle did that on Jaiden Graves at second.
Dylan Hodges met Tiger starting pitcher Cole Mahaney with a one-out double to the gap in right in Stigler's first at-bat, scoring Braden Drewary, who had just had a one-out single to center one spot earlier in the lineup.
Wyatt Pierce then tied it for the Tigers. After reaching on an infield error in the bottom of the first, he stole second and on his attempt to take third, the throw was off the mark and away, allowing him to score to tie the game.
Facing a bases-loaded situation in the third, Mahaney issued a walk to Zane Oldham, his fourth in the inning, to make it 2-1 before Austin Swaim hit into an inning-ending double play.
Two key plays turned the tide for the Tigers in the third inning.
Eakle struck out Weston Rouse with two on and one out in the third, but catcher Lakin Bass dropped the third strike. With Rouse heading to first, Bass looked toward Pierce at third and tried to throw him out. Third baseman Swaim's return throw was off Bass' glove and Pierce crossed the plate to tie the game.
The next batter, Cody Walkingstick, perfectly executed a squeeze bunt that brought Grant Edwards home from third. Fort Gibson was up 3-2, and would not trail again.
"I thought before the game that squeeze would be open there because their pitcher's not quick off the mound and the first baseman's not real quick," said the Tiger coach.
"On the dropped third strike, I thought we'd be safe whatever happened. If they got Wyatt out but he stays in a rundown long enough, we have Grant and Weston in scoring position and you're in no different shape than we'd been had they thrown Weston out at first and we had held Wyatt. It's just trying to put pressure on them and hope they make a mistake, and they did."
His son just shrugged. It's been that way all year, using their feet to create opportunities to score.
"It's the way we've played all year, getting runs when we can, just scraping away," Grant Edwards said.
As for Pierce?
"I was super-scared when the catcher threw in my direction just because I didn't want to mess it up," he said.
Graves' deep fly ball in the fourth to a backpedaling Panthers center fielder Grayson Gilmore allowed Mahaney — who led off the inning with a double to left — to score from third on the tag-up making it 4-2.
The Tigers woudl bat around in the fifth, scoring five runs.
Mahaney allowed just three hits from the fourth inning on. He struck out five and gave way to Jaxon Blunt with one out in the ninth. Blunt finished it with back-to-back strikeouts.
"I think he did a great job settling himself," said Gary Edwards of Mahaney. "You're in a high-intensity situation, people in the stands you haven't seen the likes of in a long time are there. It's easy to get amped up and try to do more than you have to do in that situation, but he was able to slow it down, control his emotions and get it done."
Fort Gibson will face Kingfisher (24-11), runner-up in District 4A-1, in the first round Thursday in the Oklahoma City area.