A deep postseason run was the expectation for Norman High’s senior-laden 2020 squad, led by first-year head coach Cody Merrell.
The Tigers were never afforded the chance to see how their season would finish thanks to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A year later, they’re much younger with game experience difficult to come by.
NHS (6-20, 2-9 District 6A-1) has just four seniors on its varsity roster, presenting more than enough opportunities for the Tigers’ younger players to develop against varsity competition.
Perhaps that growth will shine at the Central Oklahoma Athletic Conference tournament, which begins at noon today.
“If you watched us play in the month of March and you watched us play in the month of April, you would think it’s two different teams,” Merrell said. “You would have been able to see those young guys earning their stripes.”
While still struggling to get over the hump against teams in their district, the Tigers are 4-8, averaging 6.8 runs and allowing 6.2 per game since March 29.
NHS hasn’t relied so much on the superior talent of one player, which ought to be a promising sign for the Tigers’ future.
For the seniors NHS does boast, Jordan Crowder and Daniel Hayes have provided veteran leadership to the teams’ offense and pitching, respectively.
Crowder’s seeing the ball better since the Tigers’ rough start to their campaign. He has 11 of his 23 hits since the start of the month, including a season-high three hits against Duncan on April 8.
Meanwhile, Hayes has been a regular district starter and has struck out a team-leading 30 batters.
“He’s been a solid starter all year,” Merrell said of Hayes, “and unfortunately, some of the games that he’s kept us real close, we should have won, but we just couldn’t get any runs.”
The seniors are surrounded by a solid group of juniors, headlined by the likes of Connor Goodson, Hunter Hayes, Ryan Huntley and Edric Lambert.
Merrell’s also been impressed by the emergence of freshman Dax Noles, who boasts 30 hits, eight RBIs and a team second-leading .353 batting average. Huntley is first at .391.
The Tigers have a tall task ahead this weekend at their conference tournament, which pits them against both Moore (12-14, 5-5 District 6A-2) and Edmond Memorial (21-6, 11-2 District 6A-4) at noon and 2:30 p.m. today.
NHS will also face Edmond Santa Fe (14-10, 7-4 District 6A-2) at 5 p.m. Friday and Yukon (21-6, 8-2 District 6A-2) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
“There’s a good chance that one or two of these teams will be there at whatever regional we get sent to,” Merrell said, “so we just need to go out and just play.”
NHS will have the benefit of playing at Tiger Stadium each of the three days, which it isn’t likely to enjoy come the postseason.
One year after their 2020 campaign was taken away, NHS is just grateful there will be a postseason. But at their current pace, the Tigers figure to be a tough out for wherever the Class 6A playoffs take them.
“We’re getting better, and guys are gaining confidence,” Merrell said. “Hopefully we can play well here towards the end of the year and go do something at regionals.”