STILLWATER — Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination.
For the Oklahoma State baseball team, that journey began months ago with its dream destination of Omaha, Nebraska, on the distant horizon. However, that journey has been a long, winding one with many twists and turns – some not so pleasant – that appeared to be nearing its end well short of the destination.
In fact, a second-straight trip to the College World Series in Omaha wasn’t on the horizon anymore. Simply making the postseason conference tournament and finishing with a winning record were on the immediate horizon, which seemed to be fading quicker than a winter’s sunset.
With the light fading on a chance to extend their season, something changed.
“It’s really unexplainable,” OSU senior pitcher Cobb said. “It’s one of those things where none of us gave up on ourselves. We realized that although our record didn’t show it this year, we played all of the teams we were going to play last week really, really tough, and those teams knew that. We realized we just needed a couple bounces to go our way and we’re going to be in all of those games.”
The exact date of the change is unknown, but it was roughly two weeks ago. The journey that has led the Cowboys to a No. 3 seed in the Fayetteville Regional is believed to have begun shortly after an 11-7 loss at Oral Roberts on May 16.
It was their sixth straight loss, three of which were nonconference and five of which came in the friendly confines of Allie P. Reynolds Stadium. In the loss to ORU, who will also be in the Fayetteville Regional, the Cowboys gave up nine runs in the first two innings before suffering a tough loss that had coaches pondering if the season was all but over.
“We stopped at QuikTrip and I decided that the kids were giving effort – they still cared, they still fought and they still had pride,” OSU coach Josh Holliday said. “We were OK with each other. We understood where we were at. … We kind of licked our wounds, came home and as I told the kids, ‘We’re going to go play in front of the entire state of Oklahoma Thursday night in Tulsa and Friday and Saturday night in Oklahoma City, and doggone it, we’re not going to embarrass ourselves. We’re going to go out there and represent OSU with some serious determination.”
After the ORU loss, the Cowboys still held the eighth spot in the Big 12 standings, but narrowly above Kansas State for the final spot in the Big 12 Tournament. All that stood between the Cowboys and a berth into the tournament was Bedlam rival Oklahoma, who sat third in the standings.
Rain postponed the series-opening game in Tulsa before more rain halted the first game in Oklahoma City halfway through. Late on the night of May 19, it was decided Bedlam would be decided in just two games, with both on that next day.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, KSU swept its May 19 doubleheader at Baylor, taking a 1 1/2-game lead over the Cowboys. That forced OSU to win both Bedlam games, which were scheduled to resume midway through the first contest with OSU leading 5-2.
The Pokes survived the first contest, 9-7, before sweeping OU with a 5-2 win in the nightcap. They staved off their first elimination game of their journey.
“Man, that was a tricky series, too, with not getting on the field for the better part of, I guess, three days before anything was decided,” Holliday said. “That was one of those weeks that checked our internal fortitude. It checked our commitment to this to the deepest level, and the kids responded. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of in a team setting – watching these kids continue to fight and to respond the way they have.”
Sophomore Carson Teel recalled Sunday where this run began.
“It started out with OU,” Teel said. “I love beating them – any chance I get – I love beating them. We got to do that, get in this tournament.”
With momentum on their side and confidence rising, the Cowboys headed to Oklahoma City last week for the Big 12 Tournament. First up was top-seeded Texas Tech – a team they had taken 2 of 3 from in Lubbock, Texas, earlier this season. The Cowboys blanked the Red Raiders, 3-0.
A pair of Colin Simpson home runs propelled OSU to Saturday’s semifinals with an 8-4 win over West Virginia, who eloquently nicknamed the OSU catcher “Homer Simpson” earlier in the season. The Mountaineers defeated TTU on Friday, setting up a rematch with OSU for a title game berth.
Garrett McCain drove in three runs in the sixth inning, giving OSU a 3-1 lead. WVU tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, but McCain’s RBI single to score Jacob Chappell gave the Pokes a 4-3 win in extra innings.
“No one thought they’d see us here, and that’s OK,” Holliday said. “In some ways, that helped us find an angle to play. These kids took that angle and said if this is the only choice we have, why not do it?”
On Sunday, the Cowboys played in front of nearly 9,000 fans at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, and most of those were orange and black faithful. They rallied to beat Texas and earn an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament eight days after it looked like the Big Dance wasn’t on the horizon.
As Holliday waited for his players to make their way to the press conference, he kept smiling. The fifth-year coach sat in almost disbelief at what his team accomplished.
“I’m just happy for these kids,” Holliday said. “When you coach, you wake up every day and all you want to do is protect your kids. You want them doing good in life, happy and feel like they’re moving toward their goals. This was one of those years where that was a tough thing to find sometimes. And, times I felt like it really wore on me, because I felt like I was letting them down – that it wasn’t quite the environment or the experience that they wanted that we seek so much for them to have.”
This was the same coach who guided the Cowboys to one win away from the CWS Finals less than 12 months ago. On Sunday, none of that mattered. The nearly impossible was accomplished.
“To watch these kids and what they’ve done in the last two weeks has been probably the most rewarding and educational thing as a coach that I’ve ever been a part of or witnessed – just absolutely amazing,” Holliday said. “You really learn what sport can teach you. There will never be another situation in our kids’ lives where they run into some adversity that they won’t believe they can turn it around. I know as an adult, at 40 years old, they showed me that, they taught me that. We’re savoring this.”
Now, the Cowboys have staved off two elimination games. They will carry the momentum and confidence into Arkansas’ Baum Stadium hoping to continue their season once again.
“This season was full of highs and lows,” McCain said. “At the beginning of the season, everyone preached that this was a marathon and not a sprint. There were moments where we showed glimpses that we could play this style of baseball, and it was almost like we would go to sleep and forget what we had just done.
“After that Oral Roberts loss, having Coach Holliday talk to us about how cool it would be to flip our situation, his confidence really resonated in us and allowed us to play better. The amount of support we have from our coaching staff is incredible. We played like we had nothing to lose. It feels great to finally have experienced that ‘flip’ that coach was talking about.”