CARY, N.C. -- Going into the 2015 season, Henderson State was picked by the league’s coaches to finish ninth in the eleven-team Great American Conference.
Ninth. Out of eleven teams.
Honestly, from the outside looking in, there wasn’t a lot of reason to be confident about the Reddies’ chances this year. The team sported a dismal 17-31 record in 2014, hadn’t had a winning season since 2010 and only three in the past 11 years.
Henderson State defied those expectations, and in a big way, too. Finishing fourth in the GAC with a record of 16-10 and 31-19 overall, the Reddies advanced to the school’s first Central Region championship. And not only did they make the regional -- they won it by beating perennial favorites St. Cloud State, Minnesota State-Mankato and Emporia State.
“Regardless of where we were picked, this is the exact same team from last year, pretty much,” head coach Cody Hooten said. “We had a lot of injuries. We had some guys underperform. Going into the season, we were going to have a chip on our shoulders.
“We had some guys with a really bad taste in their mouth about how they and the team performed last year. That just kind of unified us to say, ‘You know what? We’re going to do some special things. We’re going to show some people we’re not a ninth-place team.’ ”
The injuries last year seemed to concentrate in the worst place possible: on the mound. That was a bad thing then, but it also came with a silver lining. The team’s young hurlers might have been thrown to the wolves in 2014, but this year had some experience under their belts.
As a result, their collective ERA was lowered nearly two full runs.
“We relied on a bunch of freshmen last year on the mound,” Hooten said. “Those guys are older now. They’re just better. That’s been the biggest impact. We know if we can score four or five runs, we’ve got a good shot to win the game.”
The team’s fortunes appear headed in the right direction off the field as well. Not a lot of priority had been placed on Henderson State’s baseball program, and it’s probably hard to tell if that was because of how the team was faring or vice versa.
Hooten has been the Reddies’ head coach for five seasons now, and a new athletic director was hired 18 months ago. A $2.5 million renovation of its facilities is planned, and, as Hooten says, “Things are about to get really good at our place.”
“Our kids finally feel like somebody outside of our inner circle actually cares if we do any good or not,” Hooten said. “That’s made a big difference. It’s about to be a place where it’s going to be a little easier to win. My first few years, it was pretty tough.”
What’s perhaps most incredible about Henderson State’s turnaround this season is the snow and rain it was forced to endure on the Arkadelphia, Arkansas campus. No less than 13 games were cancelled, while another nine were somehow altered or played at a different location. The team couldn’t even practice on its home turf.
Out of 50 games, only 10 were played at home. Following a home series in mid-February, the next 17 games and 23 out of the next 26 were on the road.
“At first it’s frustrating and then you just deal with it,” Hooten said. “The kids did a great job of just dealing with it. We tried to turn it into an advantage … maybe it throws off the other team. Our guys are really tough and easy to deal with. I think they turned it into a positive for us.”
After making not only the regionals for the first time, but also here this week to the NCAA Division II Baseball Championship, what might be next? Hooten wouldn’t say, but no matter what happens, it’ll cap one whale of a ride for the Reddies this year.
“We went into last week not talking much about expectations or what we wanted to do,” Hooten said. “We just played loose and hard, and were just kind of very process-based and not results-based. That really worked out for us. That’s the way we’re going into this. We’re not saying we have to win it or we have to win this many games. We’re just going to put our heads down, play hard, look up at the end and hope we’re better than the other team.”