The University of Oklahoma's perennially strong baseball program endured an uncharacteristic losing season in 2001, its first since 1968. However, head coach Larry Cochell, the coaching staff and the Sooners have a short memory and they're attempting to put the past behind them, restoring the program to its lofty perch among the nation's elite. There is an extremely talented cast of newcomers who are set to join an established core group of quality veterans, and hopes are high for a very successful year and a run deep into the post-season.
The Sooners return 10 players from the 2001 squad, highlighted by senior pitchers Evan Greusel and Rocky Cherry, who was an honorable mention All-Big 12 performer in 2001. After being named a Freshman All-American in 2000, right-handed pitcher Austin Mix is looking to bounce back and regain his dominating form after a somewhat disappointing 2001. Buddy Blair and Mark Roberts gained valuable experience as freshmen last season, while Michael Bradbury is entering his fourth year as a Sooner, and all three figure to be major factors in the pitching staff
Charlie Frasier started in every game last year and returns as one of OU's top power hitters. He is joined by Matt Fisher, an infielder who saw a considerable amount of playing time in 2001, and Denver Kitch, who continues to develop as a hitter and defensive player. Right-handed pitcher Zack Cherry and outfielder Tyler Johnson spent last season honing their skills as redshirts, and will be looked upon as contributors in 2002.
In addition to the players Cochell and his staff have returning, a talented group of freshmen and newcomers are expected to be major contributors toward OU's success this year. The group was rated the 11th best incoming class in the nation by Collegiate Baseball, the highest ranked group in the Big 12 Conference. It is the highest-ranked group for Oklahoma in three years.
Two of those newcomers are Spencer Wyman and Chris Jakubauskas, who transferred from California-Berkley and Santa Clara University, respectively. Wyman is a highly regarded catcher and should provide an immediate contribution at that position, while Jakubauskas is an outfielder who should bring a power-hitting presence from the left side of the plate. The Sooners will have 11 transfers from community and junior colleges on the club, headlined by outfielder Jason Fransz, who brings very impressive offensive numbers to OU via Riverside Community College in California. Seven of the 22 newcomers are true freshmen, including pitchers David Purcey and Jarod McAuliff. Both players turned down offers from professional baseball clubs to come to OU.
Oklahoma lost a number of pitchers from last season, but still looks to have a pitching staff in 2002 that rivals any of its dominating groups of the past. Seniors Rocky Cherry and Greusel figure to lead the staff, as each is entering his fourth year in the program. Rocky Cherry became OU's all-time leader in appearances with 72 and led the club in wins (eight) and ERA (4.88) last season. Greusel was a tri-captain last season and started in 14 games. He had a 4.95 ERA and struck out 52 batters, despite battling tendinitis most of the year.
"Those guys have got to step it up," said Cochell of his senior hurlers. "They have been great leaders for us and they must continue to improve. Hopefully they will be healthy."
Roberts was OU's closer last season, appearing in a team high 27 games and finishing with four saves. He had a 3-2 record and won a complete game decision over Texas Tech in the 2001 Phillips 66 Big 12 Tournament in Oklahoma City. It was just the 13th complete game in conference tournament history. He will be a starter this season and possibly the ace of pitching coach Ray Hayward's staff.
Mix should also be a major factor in OU's starting rotation. He is looking to regain his freshman form from the 2000 season, when he was a Freshman All-American and a second-team All-Big 12 selection. He again led the club in strikeouts last season (111) and in just two seasons, is tied for 10th in OU history with 206 strikeouts. Mix made 17 starts, had three complete games and pitched 106 innings in 2001, all team highs.
Bradbury and Blair will again be looked upon as solid contributors out of the bullpen, and might even compete for starting spots. Bradbury is a three-year letterwinner and over the course of his career, and has seen action in 55 games, while making 21 starts. Blair held opponents to a .226 batting average, the lowest of all OU hurlers.
Physically, Purcey is among the most talented hurlers on the club. At 6-5 and 235 pounds, the left-hander has "major league potential," according to Cochell. He was rated among the top 100 prep players in the nation at Dallas' Trinity Christian Academy last year and can routinely throw in the mid-nineties. He was projected to be a second round draft pick, but slipped to the 20th round due to concerns of major league teams about their ability to sign him. The Seattle Mariners selected him, however he decided instead to attend Oklahoma. McAuliff was an all-conference and all-state selection for the past two seasons and his potential definitely has the coaching staff excited. Purcey and McAuliff will battle for starting roles, and will most certainly see action in middle relief and possibly in closing duties.
Curtis White was selected Freshman of the Year in the Jayhawk Conference while at Seward (Kan.) Community College, and was an all-conference selection there last season. He also turned down a sizable bonus from major league clubs to come to OU. Righty Ryan Williams was dominating at Saddleback College, finishing as the school's all-time leader in ERA (0.88). Zack Cherry should benefit from a year in the Oklahoma system as a redshirt in 2001.
Cochell and the coaching staff secured a key addition to this year's squad in the fall as Kyle Bebout, formerly of the University of Portland, will transfer to OU. In 2001, he was an All-West Coast Conference pitcher for the Pilots and led the team and the conference with 33 appearances. He had a 3-2 record, a team-best 3.17 ERA and one combined shutout and the Sooner are excited to have him.
"We feel good about the guys we have on this pitching staff," said Cochell. "We are much improved in this area and we'll have good depth to work with. As a group, the staff has to grow up and everyone needs to improve, but we're excited about the guys we have."
Last season's catching duties were shared by Sean Smith, Eliot Joyner and Chris Haggard, however all three players have either graduated or are no longer with the team. Transfers Wyman and Richardson are now battling for the starting position and both bring impressive credentials to Norman. Wyman established himself as a left-handed power-hitter and a solid defensive player behind the plate at Cal-Berkley. After a decorated prep career in southern California, he started in 17 games for the Golden Bears last season.
Richardson was twice an all-state selection in Arizona before honing his skills for one season at Central Arizona College. He comes from an impressive baseball family, as his father is a high school coach and his brother was a pitcher for the University of Arizona. Freshman Matt Bose has catching experience that may help the club. He was one of the most heavily recruited athletes in the nation coming out of Midland (Texas) High School as a third baseman, but will move behind the plate as well as work in the infield this season. Wayne Baker also returns as a valuable reserve.
"Wyman and Richardson are both sophomores who have a lot of baseball experience," said Cochell. "We know that Bose is a very tough, hard-nosed kid with the right makeup. His mental toughness is off the chart. On paper, we're much improved at the position and we're excited about the options we have back there."
Greg Dobbs was OU's leading offensive player last season and his loss to graduation will be felt, however the Sooners expect to have a solid group of outfielders that will make fans and opponents forget Dobbs' .428 batting average and 25 doubles.
Reggie Willits hit .387 and drove in 72 runs during a two-year junior college career at Seminole State College, which saw him earn All-Region honors in 2000 and lead his club to a third place national finish. His speed and hitting abilities should be an immediate help to the Sooners. Matt Arkison was an all-conference outfielder at Texarkana Junior College, leading the club to two conference and regional championships, as well as a berth in the NJCAA World Series. He was a third-team All-American as a sophomore and set the conference record for runs scored as a freshman. His speed will be a major benefit to the Sooners, as he stole 30 bases a year ago. Johnson appeared in just three games last season due to a knee injury, but was able to maintain his redshirt status. He was an all-state outfielder coming out of Jenks (Okla.) High and now that he's healthy, he should offer excellent power once he accumulates at bats.
After a short stint at Santa Clara University, Jakubauskas arrived in Norman with incredible numbers at the junior college level. At Citrus College, the left-handed hitter nearly reached a .400 batting average, while hitting 23 home runs, driving in 105 runs and earning All-Foothills Conference honors and a conference championship. He will bring a solid left-handed bat to the Sooners' lineup. Fransz was also a star at the junior college level in California, accumulating impressive power and all-around numbers at Riverside Community College. He was an All-American, as well as an all-conference and all-league performer and has twice been drafted in the Major League draft, going in the 38th round to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2000 and in the 42nd round to the Kansas City Royals in the 1999 draft. As was the case with Purcey, major league clubs had questions as to whether or not they could sign him, therefore he dropped further into the draft than was expected.
Greg Kish is another talented newcomer to the OU outfield. He was an all-league and all-area player at Mira Costa High in California, however his most valuable experience came as a member of the 2001 U.S. Junior National Team. He led the team in batting average, home runs and RBI at the Junior Pan American Tournament, and his international experience will surely help him as a Sooner. He's expected to compete for a starting spot in the Sooner outfield.
The Sooners' outfield rotation will also be bolstered by Brandon Jones, a speedy power hitter who spent the fall as a wide receiver and punt returner for Bob Stoops' Top Ten football squad. He was drafted by the New York Yankees coming out of Liberty Eylau High in Texas, and has all the tools necessary to excel at the college level. He will most certainly be among the team's best athletes and his potential in both sports is off the charts.
"We feel like we're going to be a stronger team in the outfield than a year ago," said Cochell. "We have a lot of options with guys like Arkison, Willits, Johnson and Jakubauskas. Fransz is a kid who brings in big numbers from California and Kish is going to be a very good player for us. We have a lot of strength and quality in the outfield between those guys."
A number of talented infielders return from last year's squad, and a group of potential star newcomers is set to hit campus, making the infield a strength of the club. First baseman Frasier was among OU's best offensive players last season, hitting .296 and driving in 57 runs, while leading the team with 13 home runs. Now at 230 pounds, the lefty should continue to bring considerable power to the club. As he did in 2001, Frasier should see some time at the designated hitter position. After a successful freshman year at second base, Fisher returns and is hoping to solidify his hold on the position. Fisher started in 50 games a year ago and showed considerable speed and defensive skill, in addition to hitting ability. He hit 11 doubles and had a 12-game hitting streak.
A heated battle at the shortstop position is taking place between Kitch and Eddie Cornejo, a junior college transfer from Riverside Community College. Cornejo was an All-Orange Empire Conference selection a year ago and led his team to the California State Championship in 2000 and 2001. Kitch is coming off a 2001 season that saw him play in 34 games and gain valuable experience, both at the plate and in the field. The coaching staff sees him as a high pick in the coming Major League drafts, so he will see considerable playing time at either shortstop or in the outfield.
Blair Robinson redshirted a season ago and should be a factor due to his fielding ability, as will Tony Calderon, a junior college All-American and a first-team Orange Empire Conference pick last season at Santa Ana College. Ben Pinkston hit .389 and nine home runs en route to an all-state senior year at Muskogee (Okla.) High, and will be in the mix for playing time as a freshman.
Luke Alexander was Panola College's team MVP in 2001 and was a first-team all-conference selection. He participated in the Texas-New Mexico Junior College All-Star Game and led his squad to a third-place finish at the 2000 regional tournament. He should be one of the team's best left-handed hitters. Heith Gadient comes to OU as a senior transfer, after being named a second-team all-conference performer at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, Calif. He played first and third base there and should be a factor at those positions for Cochell's squad. Bose also figures to be a factor in the infield, as well as behind the plate.
"We know Alexander is going to be in the lineup somewhere," said Cochell. "He should be one of our best hitters from the left side of the plate. We feel like we have a lot of depth at most every position in the infield. There is competition for every spot and since our recruiting went so well, we now have some real talented players on this team. There is competition now, so no one can sit back and relax."
As always, Oklahoma's schedule this season will be a tough one. Eight of this season's opponents reached the NCAA Tournament a year ago, including Nebraska, who went all the way to the College World Series. Highlighting this year's non-conference slate is a three-game set at Arizona State, March 15-17, a matchup with the Sun Devils in Oklahoma City on April 24, and games against Southeastern Conference members Alabama and Arkansas.
Year in and year out, OU's Big 12 Conference schedule presents several challenges and this year is no different. Five Big 12 teams took part in the 2001 NCAA Tournament, including Nebraska, Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. OU has series scheduled versus each of those teams, with the Bears and Longhorns visiting Norman. OU travels to Lincoln, Neb., to face the Cornhuskers and Lubbock, Texas, to play the Red Raiders. A three-game series with Oklahoma State is scheduled, with two games at Oklahoma City's Southwestern Bell Bricktown Ball Park and one game at Tulsa's Driller's Stadium. The Phillips 66 Big 12 Baseball Tournament will be played in Arlington, Texas, on May 22-25.
"This will be a very challenging schedule," said Cochell. "We've got Arizona State four times and they are always tough. The Big 12 is always very solid. I think Texas has a chance to have one of its best ball clubs and Baylor should be tough again. Nebraska will be an excellent team and Oklahoma State has a lot of players back. Texas A&M might have the best pitching in the league. The thing that makes this such a tough league is that all of the bottom teams have improved so much."
The University of Oklahoma baseball team faces a lot of challenges in the coming season, however Cochell's sights are set on one particular mission.
"Our biggest challenge is to get this program back to what it's been used to," said Cochell. "In 11 years, if you look at the all the Big 12 schools, there's only one school that's been to the World Series three times, and that's Oklahoma. There's only team that's won a national championship and only one team who has gone to seven out of 11 Regionals, and that's Oklahoma. We've got to get back to that. Our expectations here are always high. We're always shooting for excellence and that means being one of the top teams in the country."