Two thousand and fourteen marks a new era for Oklahoma baseball as first-year head coach Pete Hughes takes over the reigns as the program’s ninth head coach. A veteran coach with 17 years of head coaching experience, he comes to Norman with a 524-385-2 career record and has been entrusted with a program that has been to 10 College World Series and 36 NCAA Tournaments.
The Sooners are coming off a 43-21 campaign in 2013, which ended with a trip to the NCAA Super Regionals. Oklahoma claimed the Big 12 Tournament Championship as well as the NCAA Blacksburg Regional on its way to reaching the 40-win mark for the fifth straight season.
Despite the loss of five starters in the lineup, three starting pitchers and a total of six MLB draft picks, the Sooners return the core of their team right up the middle with sophomore catcher Anthony Hermelyn (McKinney, Texas), senior second baseman Hector Lorenzana (San Diego, Calif.) and sophomore center fielder Craig Aikin (Coppell, Texas).
The OU pitching staff will look to replace nearly 60% of its innings pitched from 2013 after losing five players to the draft. The eight pitchers that remain from a year ago combined to post a 17-7 record and a 3.31 collective earned run average. Coach Hughes’ returning staff will be aided by the addition of seven new arrivals, including two junior college transfers. In the short term, the challenge for the coaching staff will be determining which pictures will step into starting roles and take the bulk of the innings.
“We have a ton of guys good enough to compete for starting jobs,” stated Hughes. “That tells us that we have a deep staff. Our depth does give us the ability to go to our bullpen often and have the option of any number of quality arms. For the rotation, we will be looking for guys to step up and show they can lead and give us strong innings on the weekends.”
Sophomore Jacob Evans (Broken Arrow, Okla.) is coming off a Freshman All-America season as the Sooners closer in 2013. The 6’2 left-hander notched nine saves with a 2.06 ERA and 41 strikeouts over 52.1 innings of work.
“Jacob Evans has experienced the most success at the collegiate level, among our returning pitchers,” said Hughes. “He came through the bullpen last year, but this year he will get the chance to win a starting position.”
Redshirt-sophomore lefty Adam Choplick (Denton, Texas) made 10 starts in 2013, the most among any returning pitcher. Standing at 6’8, the 2011 Arizona Diamondbacks 17th round pick possesses the potential to be a starting pitcher with a strong arm and feel for all three of his pitches. Choplick went 3-3 with a 5.56 ERA and 36 strikeouts across 34 innings and needs to remain healthy to become a consistent presence in the weekend rotation.
A pair of seniors will compete for work in the rotation, but can also provide valuable veteran leadership to the staff out of the bullpen. Kindle Ladd (McKinney, Texas) is a 6’1 righty who made 13 appearances out of the bullpen last season with a 3.65 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 24.2 innings. Drew Krittenbrink (Okarche, Okla.) is a 6’1 redshirt-senior who made just three appearances, but two starts and didn’t allow a run in seven innings of work. Both are dependable strike throwers that could see mid-week starting action of sure up the bullpen.
Two freshmen are expected to have the opportunity to earn starts right away in 6’7 righty Jake Elliott (Coppell, Texas) and 6’5 lefty Octavio Rodriguez (El Paso, Texas). Elliot, a 2013 Louisville Slugger Second Team All-American, has shown significant arm strength and features a very good change-up. Rodriguez was a 2013 Perfect Game All-American and uses a ton of movement and late life on his fastball to challenge hitters along with a good command of his secondary pitches.
Redshirt-sophomore Corey Copping (Temple City, Calif.) and freshman Tyler Gibson (Wister, Okla.) are two of the primary candidates to become mid-week starters. Copping, a 6’1 righty, pitched in five games, including four starts, to a 5.74 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 15.2 innings last season. He has a quick arm, a plus change-up and late life on his fastball. Gibson, a 6’4 righty, has a power arm with a solid three-pitch mix, plus change-up and an above average breaking ball.
Sophomore Ralph Garza Jr. (New Braunfels, Texas) was a mainstay in the Sooner bullpen as a rookie, pitching 58.2 innings, and will likely assume that role again. The 6’3 righty throws a lot of strikes and is no stranger to tough situations on the mound. Garza owned a 2.76 ERA, 5-1 record and struck out 38 batters.
Veteran righties Kyle Hayes (Santee, Calif.) and Robert Tasin (Klein, Texas) figure to be two of the first pitchers up in the bullpen this season. Hayes, a 6’2 senior, tossed 30.2 innings to a 3.23 ERA with two saves late in the season and 23 strikeouts. He brings experience along with a dependable arm to the bullpen along with a heavy fastball. Tasin, a 6’1 redshirt-junior, recorded a 3.29 ERA and two saves in 13.2 innings out of the pen last season. He too throws a heavy fastball, while also having a strong repertoire of secondary pitches.
Junior right-hander Connor Buchmann (Keller, Texas) is one Oklahoma’s newcomers jostling for position in the bullpen. A 6’1 junior college transfer from Howard College, Buchmann has a power arm that reaches the mid-90s and a good slider. Fellow newcomer, freshman righty Alec Hansen (Loveland, Colo.) will also be looking for innings out of the pen. He stands at 6’7 and has electric stuff and as strong and arm as any pitcher on OU’s staff.
Sophomore Jeffrey Curran (Long Beach, Calif.) will be the first lefty out of the bullpen. A 6’3 transfer from Fullerton College, he is an ideal option out of the pen as a situational lefty with a lot of movement on his fastball and a good breaking ball. Curran went 9-2 with a 2.25 ERA, while helping Fullerton win its Regional and Super Regional Championships. Oklahoma’s next left-handed option out of the bullpen is redshirt-freshman Hayden Jones (Houston, Texas). The 6’1 former 5A All-State performer in Texas sat out last season and looks to compete for innings and situational spots.
Redshirt-sophomore Cole Stevens (Blanchard, Okla.), a 6’6 righty, is returning from an injury that sidelined him in 2013 and will compete for innings out of the bullpen. Sophomore righty Chad Nelson (Edmond, Okla.), a 5’11 transfer from Oklahoma City University, will redshirt this season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Hermelyn, one of Oklahoma’s three Freshman All-Americans in 2013, returns to his backstop role and looks to build on the success of his first season in Norman. He started 51 games and hit .275 with 26 RBI from the right side of the plate. Hermelyn took over pitch-calling duties late last spring and will continue to work and develop with a deep pitching staff and several new arms.
Junior Mac James (New Braunfels, Texas) emerged as the number two catcher out of fall ball. Despite hitting just .222 in nine at-bats last season, James has shown power potential and will be given the opportunity to spell Hermelyn with starts behind the dish. Senior Dylan Neal (McKinney, Texas) will once again compete for starts at catcher as well as starts in the designated hitter role. He played in 26 games last year and hit .158 and reached base at a .327 clip in 38 at-bats. Freshman Taylor Neitsch (Allen, Texas) provides depth at the catcher position.
“Defense, specifically our infield, will be one of our greatest strengths this season,” said Hughes. “Right up the middle, we return our catcher, second baseman and center fielder. The addition of our new and younger guys, particularly our freshman infielders, will help us be a better offensive team than we were a year ago.”
Lorenzana started all 64 games at second base a year ago and is the frontrunner for the spot again, but may also see time at shortstop. He hit .274 with 42 RBI, 33 runs, 12 doubles and a .704 OPS. Hughes expects Lorenzana to build on his 2013 season and be the leader of Oklahoma’s infield. Sophomore Kolbey Carpenter (Waco, Texas) is the only other returner on the infield, though he was primarily used at DH. He hit .264 with 24 RBI, 18 runs, 10 doubles and will look to compete for starts at third base.
On the left side of the infield, junior Joshua Ake (Readington, N.J.) and freshman Sheldon Neuse (Fort Worth, Texas) will compete for starting positions at short and third, respectively. Ake, a transfer from Howard College by way of North Carolina as well as the 2011 29th round pick of the New York Mets, is a very athletic middle infielder that provides an older presence among the infielders. He hit .275 with 15 runs and 10 RBI for Howard last season. Neuse, who may also be used in a back-end of the bullpen spot, could play every day at third or in a corner outfield spot. An offensive threat, who was a two-time District MVP in high school, is expected to contribute right away.
At first base, Hughes looks to the freshman platoon of lefty Niko Buentello (Lewisville, Texas) and righty Austin O’Brien (Owasso, Okla.). Buentello has an advanced approach at the plate for a freshman and will have the opportunity to play first and hit in the middle of the order. O’Brien, the Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year, will be found at first as well as the DH spot. He had an outstanding fall ball and has shown power with a good approach at the plate.
Junior transfer Keach Ballard (Durant, Okla.) and redshirt-freshman Tyler Coolbaugh (Colleyville, Texas) will both compete for opportunities as the Sooners’ utility infielder. Ballard, who joins OU from Murray State Junior College, was a NJCAA All-America First Team selection and will add depth to the infield and be a valuable left-handed bat off the bench. Coolbaugh redshirted in 2013 and is a strong defender with the ability to play three positions on the infield.
Aikin, the third of Oklahoma’s Freshman All-Americans, hit .286, the highest among returning players, while playing left and center field as a rookie. A lefty at the plate, he scored 42 runs, drove in 23 and swiped a team-high 16 bases.
“Craig will be a fixture at the top of our order and playing center field. He’s only a sophomore, but a guy with a ton of game experience,” stated Hughes.
Sophomore Hunter Haley (Nacogdoches, Texas) missed the fall sessions as well as much of the postseason in 2013, but is ready to compete for a starting corner outfield spot. He has as powerful left-handed bat and has shown the ability to play every day. Last season, Haley hit .264 with 22 runs, 20 RBI and 10 extra-base hits to go with eight stolen bases. Redshirt-junior Taylor Alspaugh (Broken Arrow, Okla.), who filled in for Haley during the postseason looks to earn a starting corner outfield spot from day one this season. A lefty at the plate, Alspaugh flashed the glove in his nine starts at the end of the season, while hitting .189 in 37 at-bats.
The outfield is rounded out by two more left-handed hitters in redshirt-junior Colt Bickerstaff (Mineola, Texas) and freshman Cody Thomas (Colleyville, Texas). Bickerstaff is a power threat that started 22 games last season and hit .238 with 13 RBI. Thomas, a 30th round pick of the New York Yankees, hit 15 home runs as a senior in high school and is also a back-up quarterback on the Sooner football team. He has a big, physical bat and will push for an everyday job in the outfield.
Oklahoma, which posted a 25-6 record at home in 2013, played 33 of its 56-game regular season schedule at L. Dale Mitchell Park. The Sooners kick of the Hughes era on Opening Day with the first of three against Seton Hall (Feb. 14-16) and continue with a pair of midweek games against Arkansas Pine Bluff (Feb. 18-19).
The slate is filled with nine teams that reached the NCAA Tournament of finished 2013 in the RPI Top-75, beginning with Seton Hall (No. 44). An additional eight teams competed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
The first road contests for Oklahoma take place at the UCF Tournament (Feb. 21-23), including games against the host Knights, Ohio State and Citadel, the last two of which posted 35-win seasons and finished the the RPI Top-75. The following weekend, OU hits the road for a four-game tournament at Arizona State (Feb. 27-Mar. 2). The Sun Devils finished No. 20 in the RPI with a 37-22 mark and played in the Los Angeles Regional. The Sooners also take on Manhattan, Gonzaga and Santa Clara in Surprise, Ariz.
Oklahoma returns to Norman to play 13 of 14 games at home with a two-game set against Abilene Christian (Mar. 4-5). The Sooners also host Rutgers (Mar. 7-9), Belmont (Mar. 14-16), TCU (Mar. 18), UALR (Mar. 19) and opens Big 12 play against Kansas State (Mar. 21-23). The lone road game during that stretch is against UTA (Mar. 11) in the Ballpark at Arlington.
Following a road game at Oral Roberts (Mar. 25), Oklahoma visits Kansas (Mar. 28-30) before playing 10 of its next 11 games back at home. The Sooners open Bedlam against Oklahoma State (Apr. 1) at home and then host CSU Bakersfield (Apr. 4-6), Oral Roberts (Apr. 8) and Texas (Apr. 11-13).
Oklahoma heads to Stillwater for Bedlam (Apr. 15) and then returns to Norman to face West Virginia (Apr. 17-19). The Sooners play a home-and-home series with Dallas Baptist (Apr. 29, May 13) to close out the non-conference portion of the schedule. Big 12 play nears the end with a road series at Texas Tech (Apr. 25-27), at home vs. Baylor (May 2-4) and at TCU (May 9-11).
Bedlam (May 15-17) resumes with the first game in Oklahoma City followed by the last two in Tulsa.
The Big 12 Tournament (May 21-25) will once again be played in OKC’s Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.