OMAHA, Neb. – Here we are at . . . well, let Texas A&M coach Jim Schlossnagle describe Omaha in mid-June.
“This is the pearly gates of college baseball,” he was saying Thursday. “Every time you lift a weight or make a recruiting phone call, this is what you’re thinking about.”
Or as Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett said, “When you say Omaha, I think the country knows exactly what you’re talking about.”
Yeah, they all love the place. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Oklahoma outfielder Tanner Tredaway said. “I think we all understand that.” But before the games and opportunities begin Friday, let’s reverse the process. Borrowing words uttered Thursday on media day, here are eight reasons for Omaha to love the teams right back.
The breaking voice of the Texas A&M coach . . .
What a rush job this season for Schlossnagle. He arrives from TCU, brings in a van of Division I transfers from hither and yon, and the next thing the Aggies know, they’re in Omaha, one year after wheezing to break .500 at 29-27.
“When we first got together here in the fall, it really honestly felt like a summer team; just a bunch of guys with different backgrounds coming together to play ball,” said pitcher Nathan Dettmer.
“They might be orphans, might be everybody from somewhere else, kind of,” Schlossnagle said. “But they’re good players.”
From pool parties in the fall, the retooled roster began to mesh, and did so in a big way. By June, it had turned into a dream. That meant the world to Schlossnagle, whose voice wavered when he spoke Thursday of the turn he had made in his career.
“I don’t think much about it. (But) I did think about it today because it was real tough to leave TCU. I love that school. My kids go to school there . . . (pause, glistening eyes) . . . But I needed something myself personally different. I believe there’s a shelf life to everything. I would have been more than happy and honored to be the coach at TCU the rest of my career, but I felt like it was a good time for TCU to have a new voice. And I felt professionally I really wanted the opportunity to compete in the SEC.”
And all those transfers who believed and signed on and ended up here this week? “It’s very satisfying,” Schlossnagle said. “We didn’t let (them) down. My biggest fear in life is to let somebody down.”
Oklahoma’s pluck . . .
“We’re just a team full of Davids,” coach Skip Johnson said, turning to the Bible’s first book of Samuel for his analogy.
In the age of bashers, the Sooners can small ball you to death. They run, they gamble, they keep the pressure on. “I personally don’t mind it,” shortstop Peyton Graham said. “Just creating chaos, that’s what we do, and we’re going to keep running with it.”
So it’s a roster that has accepted its mission, even as the baseball world — from the big leagues on down — goes ga-ga over home runs. “If we weren’t bought in,” Tredaway said, “I don’t know that we’d still be in the lineup.”
Maybe the Sooners might not look like the most intimidating team around. They have the fewest home runs in Omaha with 70, or 58 fewer than Texas. Heck, the Oklahoma women’s softball juggernaut was more noted for its power. But they don’t mind.
Tredaway: “More than anything, we’re here to make a statement. We were here to make a statement in the regional, we were here to make a statement in the super (regional). And now we’re here in Omaha to make a statement.”
Johnson: “We’re going to be who we are, that’s just what we do. If it works against A&M, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Such roll-the-dice attitude apparently even includes Johnson’s plans for his starting pitcher Friday against the Aggies. “When my dad passed away in 2011, he had a cowboy hat, that’s how he paid his bills. They were in a cowboy hat. He just pulled it out. That’s what I’ll be doing. I’ll put all the names in a cowboy hat and pull it out and find out who is going to pitch tomorrow,”
Texas’ tradition, like it or not . . .
The score is now 38-37 — 38 College World Series with the Longhorns, 37 without them. Such longevity is heartwarming for the supporters. For Texas-weary opponents, not so much. The Longhorns might come close to being the Duke of college baseball. Which is why they figure having to win the super regional at East Carolina could be a boost for this week.
“We know that coming in we’re not liked by a lot of teams and fan bases,” said catcher Silas Ardoin. “We know we’re going to hear it. And I think playing in Greenville was the best situation for us to be prepared for Omaha.”
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Said coach David Pierce, “People just get tired of Texas, to be honest with you. So we feed off that. We’re just going to be us. We’re not prima donnas, we’re not overly gifted. We’re just a bunch of hard-nosed guys that like baseball. And it just happens to be at the University of Texas.”
So maybe that legacy causes opposing fans nausea, but in moments of crisis — down 7-2 in the seventh inning of an elimination game last weekend at East Carolina, for example — the current players claim it becomes part weapon, part life preserver.
Shortstop Trey Faltine: “No one talks about it but it’s bigger than our team. It’s about our program and the history of our program. Knowing the history of what we’ve done, what the university has done, I think that helps us in those moments.”
Ardoin: “The name on the front of the jersey means more to us than anything. Each time we step on the field we know what we’re representing. So anytime we’re in a tough situation, we know we can fight out of it because teams have done it before. And coming to Omaha 38 times, we know it’s expected.”
Notre Dame’s climate . . .
It was Lou Holtz who once said there is nothing south about winter in South Bend. So it was a snow-covered, challenging road here for Notre Dame. It always is for northern teams.
Jarrett has a lot of Omaha in his blood. He played shortstop here for Florida State in the 1990s (he’s still in the NCAA record book for most career assists). He was in the stands here last year, trying to get over the anguish of Notre Dame’s loss to Mississippi State in the super regional but also with the pride of a parent — son J.T. was a second baseman for ill-fated North Carolina State, the team sent home by COVID. Now he’s here as a coach, with a program that had not seen the College World Series in two decades. He gave a short soliloquy Thursday on what it takes for a northern team to run the gauntlet.
“You have to have the ability to adapt to your situation at the specific northern school you’re coaching at. I’ve had to change how I practice, when we practice, where, why, how long. We didn’t step outside until Friday night at Stetson (the season opener).
“Being creative with what you’re doing training-wise to prepare them, if you’re not, you’re not going to get out of the gates. We played five weeks on the road. Our first three ACC trips were at NC State, at Louisville, at Florida State. That’s what you’re staring at right out of the gate. This is trip 13, so they’ve been through it.
“Is it hard? Probably. Can it be done? Absolutely.”
Notre Dame’s ouster of No. 1 Tennessee in the super regional shocked a good part of the college baseball universe. Not the Irish. “We just knew that if anybody could beat them, we could,” outfielder Ryan Cole said. Having overcome the orange cauldron of Knoxville and the sleet of northern Indiana, they shouldn’t be unduly fazed by the Texas aura Friday night. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who we’re playing,” Cole said. “I don’t think that affects the way we go about our business.”
Stanford’s back-to-the-wall persistence . . .
The Cardinal have survived five elimination games in the postseason. “It has not been a straight line for us,” said coach David Esquer. “We’ve earned our trip here. We don’t take anything for granted.”
That can put a sense of destiny in a team. Sounds that way, anyway.
“I think it’s good to experience everything before you get to Omaha because if you get too comfortable, you’ll be out of luck,” said outfielder Brock Jones.
“It just kind of showed me how deep we are,” said pitcher Alex Williams. “Those elimination games, we saw a lot of guys step up that haven’t really all year. I feel like in the last two weeks I realized how good of a team we are compared to last season.”
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Ah, last season. Stanford was here but gone in three games, eliminated by Vanderbilt 6-5 with a two-run ninth inning, the walk-off winning score coming across on a wild pitch. Many of the shocked Stanford players on the field that day returned, and were determined to get back here and replace that sour moment with something brighter.
“Probably was a split second of PTSD when we walked back in, remembering last year. And then it was gone,” Esquer said of Thursday's workout.
“You come back into the park and it’s the first thought that hits your brain, how you lost last year and how you ended up leaving all that behind,” Jones said. “So I think it’s definitely a big motivation.
“We’re not going to run from it. We’re here to face everything.”
Arkansas’ bid to ease past pain. . .
How 2021 ended was hard for the Razorbacks to get over. The No. 1 seed in the nation, they blew away North Carolina State 21-2 in the opener of the super regional, then dropped two one-run games. At home. “We obviously got to watch North Carolina State dogpile on our field,” said third baseman Cayden Wallace. “You take it to heart. And you’ve got to forget it at some point.”
Said pitcher Connor Noland, “It motivated us this year. We worked for it. I think Coach talked about it all year; we’ve got to do it for those guys that last year maybe didn’t have the opportunity.”
That was the latest harsh break for Dave Van Horn, who has a sterling program at Arkansas but also bruises from several agonizing exits.
“It was unbelievable,” he said of 2021. “Won everything that was put in front of us. And then to lose those two last games by one run, both days, it was tough. So this year is special because of the hurt last year, honestly. This team didn’t want to be known as the team after the team that didn’t do a whole lot and faded at the end of the year.
“I don’t want the players to feel it’s a failure if you don’t win it. It’s unbelievable, how tough it is to get here. I’ve lived it many a time. I’ve been on the other end of it. The heartbreak, that’s what’s hard to swallow. Winning it would be great. I want to win it. I’ve wanted to win it since I started coaching. Who wouldn’t? But the longer you coach, the more you just appreciate the players. And that’s where I’m at now.”
Auburn’s coach . . .
Clearly, Butch Thompson has a convincing way with words. He talked his Tigers into believing they could get to Omaha, never mind getting picked to finish last in its division. “You don’t think, you just do,” said outfielder Kason Howell. “That’s one of Coach Thompson’s quotes.”
And you could listen to him tell stories for hours.
Such as the one Thursday about the start of his college pitching career at Itawamba Community College with coach Roy Cresap: “He cut me. And he had a Dodge pickup; I remember because I followed him back to his office and I said, `you cannot cut me.’ My freshman year at Itawamba, I had to buy my uniform and I had to pay for all my meals on the road because he had only 27 uniforms. He’s the first man that loved pitching like I did. He taught me so much. When a coach gets to this stage and you get to come to Omaha . . . you think of every coach that you’ve worked for and every influence that you’ve had.”
Or how, when he was a child growing up in Mississippi as an Ole Miss fan, his dad took him to a football game once a year: “I’d go to try to steal all the souvenir cups. I’d try to get 70 or 80 of those when I was young . . . I was a pitching coach at Georgia. Vince Dooley, the first time I sat down with him as a new employee, he asked me what I knew about the SEC. I said I remember I was in Oxford the day (Georgia star back) Herschel (Walker) jumped over that line. He jumped over the pile and landed on his feet and ran into the end zone. I was absolutely there and I hated y’all.”
Or how he informed his ardent Ole Miss fan father that he had taken the Mississippi State pitching coach job: “I walked in and he’s sitting there at the table and I threw a Mississippi State hat. He’s like, boy, get that out of the house. I said I’m the pitching coach at Mississippi State. He put his head down and said, I guess blood’s thicker than water.”
Imagine the stories if the Tigers wins.
The Oh-My roller coaster ride of Ole Miss . . .
“I think most of you know our story,” coach Mike Bianco said to the media Thursday. “It’s been a great story.”
And a lively one. The Rebels were No. 1 in some polls early in the season and started 16-4. Then Tennessee showed up in Oxford and swept three games by the rather staggering count of 26-7. “Got beat up like a lot of people did this year (by Tennessee), put us in a tailspin” Bianco said.
At one point they were 7-14 in the SEC, seemingly headed nowhere fast. “We didn’t listen to all the outside noise and let that bring us down,” said first baseman Tim Elko. “Didn’t point fingers. Didn’t try to do too much. Just really tried to keep believing in ourselves and know that we are one of the best teams in the country.”
Mississippi recovered late in the season to make its case. On selection day, the Rebels were the last team admitted into the NCAA tournament field.
“Seems like a long time ago when we were sitting in our dugout club that Memorial Day morning, hoping to hear our names,” Bianco said. “When our names were called — I’ve been there for 21 of those and 18 times our name was called. I don’t remember any of those 18 times ever seeing that type of emotion from our team.
“We’ve played a lot of baseball since that point.”
A lot of very good baseball, too. Ole Miss is 5-0 in the tournament by a combined score of 46-11. Omaha lives for stories like that. And the seven others. Friday, we start finding out which will get a happy ending.