The Woodward News

June 7, 2013

Sooners facing tough challenge

Woodward News

Woodward, Okla. — BATON ROUGE, La. — Just a few pitches before Oklahoma’s 2012 season ended, Sunny Golloway took a mental picture of the surroundings. Over 8,000 fans cheered on South Carolina as it was about to advance to its third straight College World Series.

“I wanted to absorb everything going on around,” OU’s head coach recalled, “because it’s what I foresee happening at Oklahoma someday. It was what you want.”

Ideally, what the Sooners wanted was the opportunity to advance to College World Series by playing at L. Dale Mitchell Park against a team that had traveled hundreds of miles to get there. It is by far the most common path for College World Series participants.

However, for the third time in the last four years the Sooners (43-19) have to do it the hard way. It has to go on the road for a Super Regional series and try to win two of three games in the most hostile of environments.

Make no mistake, OU knows the uphill battle it waged last season in Columbia, S.C., will be every bit as arduous when the series begins with Game 1 against LSU (55-9) at 6 p.m. today at Alex Box Stadium.

OU hasn’t played in Baton Rouge since the 1997 NCAA tournament. However, the Tigers’ history — both present and past — isn’t a secret.

LSU is a dominant team that boasts one of the most intimidating environments in college sports.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people that South Carolina and LSU are probably the toughest places to go play in the postseason,” Golloway said. “I think sending us to Columbia and playing against the Gamecocks last year prepared us for what we’re about to go into.”

It will be interesting to see how the Sooners handle things this time around. Honestly, they didn’t handle things so well in last year’s Super Regional. They lost those games, 5-0 and 5-1. They never led at any point in either game. South Carolina leaned on the Sooners in both games and they buckled in the middle to late innings.

There are signs that point to things being different this year. OU is a hot team, having won eight straight, including the Big 12 tournament and going undefeated en route to the Blacksburg Regional title.

There’s a mix of experienced veterans, like shortstop Jack Mayfield and center fielder Max White along with pitchers Jonathan Gray and Dillon Overton, and freshmen like catcher Anthony Hermelyn and left fielder Craig Aikin. The mix has created a blend of youthful exuberance and seasoned experience that OU has fed off in recent weeks.

The experience is what the Sooners will rely on beginning tonight. Mayfield and White are the last links to the 2010 College World Series team. The bunch advanced to Omaha by winning a Super Regional series on the road at Virginia.

“We had to take two of three from those guys. They hadn’t lost two in a row all year. It was a big task going in, but we held our heads high. It’s the same thing here,” Mayfield said.

What OU did so well in 2010 was feed off the atmosphere. They embraced being the road team playing in front of a hostile crowd. Creating silence was golden.

Golloway has preached to his team that you can’t hide from the task at hand. It must be embraced.

“I’m looking forward to it. I know all the guys are,” reliever Kyle Hayes said. “I’m excited to play in front of all those people and have everyone yelling at you. You just have to focus on the task.”

OU would like to do that again. It has the pitching to do it. Gray (10-2, 1.59 ERA) will take the mound against LSU’s Aaron Nola (11-0, 1.82 ERA). The series opener might be the best pitching matchup on any college diamond this season. Just scratching out a couple of runs could be enough for a win.

A couple of runs might be enough to seize the momentum and ride it for a Super Regional series victory.

The opponent and the geography have changed, but the Sooners know exactly what position they’ve put themselves in. They have the roughest road possible to get to Omaha. They have to win two of three games against LSU in Baton Rouge.

But they’re looking on the bright side.

“I do know this: If you go into LSU and win the Super Regional, you have a great chance to win the national championship,” Golloway said.