STILLWATER, Okla. — It’s been eight months since Josh Holliday and the Oklahoma State baseball team won the Big 12 Conference Tournament in Oklahoma City.
It was an improbable 4-0 run through the tournament for the No. 8-seeded Cowboys, who needed to win it for the second time in program history to make the NCAA Tournament. They swept a Bedlam doubleheader the previous weekend to notch the final spot in the conference tournament.
The success at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark didn’t last long as the Cowboys were bounced out of the NCAA Regional with two-straight losses.
Yet, it was the conference tournament championship that still resonates with the Cowboys as they prepare to begin their 2018 campaign.
“It was huge,” said Holliday, the Cowboys’ sixth-year coach. “Huge for that momentum. Huge for that group of kids. Just huge, period. Winning a tournament is hard. I think we’d won one other tournament since 1997, so the tournament had been in existence for 19 years and we’d won it one other time. Those are hard to win, and it was a heck of a tournament when you look at how good the teams were.
“Add to the fact that it was our only avenue to extend our season and that meant even more. But, probably what meant the most was the joy that we felt afterward. That was such an amazing experience to share with our kids and we did it in front of 10,000 Oklahoma State fans that afternoon. That was an awesome moment. It’s a moment that’s going to go up on one of these walls, because it’s significant.”
While the conference tournament title was celebrated last year, Holliday knows it won’t give the Cowboys any obvious advantage on the field this spring. However, he isn’t completely putting it in the past, because of the lasting impact those four wins did for this youthful squad a year ago.
“… It’s not going to give us a point on the scoreboard, but it’s a part of how we felt when we left here, how we felt about coming back and getting started on a new year,” Holliday said. “It confirmed with our players that you have to stick with this thing. No one said it was going to be easy. I just think those experiences are part of learning and learning is a good thing. Do we sit around and talk about it dwell on it? No, we don’t sit around and talk about it, but at the same time, somewhere in those moments during that tournament we learned things that we can use moving forward.”
The Cowboys did lose seven players – four of whom graduated – from last year’s roster. However, they return a solid corps of position players and all but three pitchers.
Four hitters who played in the tournament championship return this year. They are senior outfielder Jon Littell, junior catcher Colin Simpson, sophomore second baseman Ryan Cash and sophomore shortstop Cameron Dobbs.
“We’re definitely riding some momentum from the Big 12 Championship, especially because we had so many freshmen starting in that game,” Simpson said. “I think we only had two, maybe three guys who aren’t here this year playing in that game. Having those six or seven guys from that starting lineup still here is going to help us carry a lot of momentum back, which is a big thing.”
Simpson will be a staple behind the plate for the Cowboys again this season. He played in 53 of 57 games a year ago, and started 46 of those as the OSU catcher. He hit a team-leading 11 home runs last year. Travis Wacker could be Simpson’s backup.
The rest of the Cowboys’ infield will likely be a rotating crew until Holliday feels comfortable with players in their respective positions. Cash and Dobbs are expected to remain at their positions, but the corners will see new faces, replacing Dustin Williams and Garrett Benge.
Senior Andrew Rosa saw time at first base a year ago and could find himself there this spring. Michael Neustifter has been practicing at first and third base, and Holliday said Neustifter is likely to play at either corner of the infield.
In the outfield, OSU fans will see two familiar faces in Littell (left field) and sophomore Cade Cabbiness (right field). Sophomore Trevor Boone will earn first dibs at center field, according to Holliday.
“He can go get the ball,” Holliday said of Boone. “He has good closing speed on the ball. He has a tremendous throwing arm and a very high motor. He revs hard. He goes hard, plays hard and has a fearlessness in center field that you want where a guy’s going to go make plays gap to gap and leave his feet when he has to. I like Trevor in center field.”
While those are the faces that are likely to see more time during the first games of the season, Holliday said a few first-year players could make an impact this spring. Those players included Christian Funk, Max Hewitt, Matt Kroon, Carson McCusker and Jake Taylor.
There will also be new faces on the mound this spring. However, OSU fans should expect to see some familiar faces to begin the season.
The returning pitchers include sophomore Brady Basso, senior Cole Hearrean, sophomore Jonathan Heasley, junior Joe Lienhard, junior Carson Teel and sophomore C.J. Varela.
Teel and Lienhard won five and three games, respectively, last year. Meanwhile, Heasley and Varela each won a pair of games as freshmen.
“Carson Teel comes back as a veteran pitcher,” Holliday said. “Joe Lienhard has pitched a great deal – he’s a veteran pitcher. Jonathan Heasley, I think is prime for a really good sophomore year. We saw glimpses of Jonathan last year where he really started to show that there’s some special stuff in that arm. His consistency and maturity this fall – he really grew in those areas, so I’m excited for him.
“Brady Basso – another kid in his second year – has really shown signs of moving in the right direction. C.J. Varela last year as a freshman quietly had one of those really good, solid freshman seasons where he pitched in a lot of games and started some games. There’s a good foundation of guys back from that standpoint. There are some guys that people aren’t as familiar with that I think have a chance to help us.”
While the Cowboys return several pitchers who saw significant time last year, it’s not all good news entering the season, which begins Feb. 16. Junior Jensen Elliott remains out after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year, as does redshirt freshman Parker Scott, who also had Tommy John surgery.
“Probably the biggest question is the status of Jensen Elliott, because Jensen was an All-American-caliber pitcher as a freshman,” Holliday said. “To lose him last year to Tommy John was a tough blow. We’re not exactly certain what his return looks like. So, that’s a bit of a question for us that we don’t really know.”
The Cowboys will begin their season Feb. 16 with a weekend stand at Texas State. After three games in San Marcos, Texas, they will return home for six-straight home games. The Cowboys’ home opener is Feb. 20 against in-state rival Oral Roberts.
“Get on a bus Wednesday night, drive halfway, find a nice steakhouse, ride the rest of the way in and be proud to put on some new great uniforms and start this over again,” Holliday said of his plans for that first trip. “We had our banquet a couple nights ago and I had a pretty simple message to the kids. I’m excited to see what we’re capable of doing. I’m fascinated to see what it looks like when we get it right and I can’t wait to see who creates new moments and who emerges and has a great season. That’s why you play these college seasons.”
Gillispie writes for Stillwater News Press, a CNHI News Service publication.