By Murray Evans
MASON, Ohio (May 14, 2013) – At the start of the baseball season, first-year Oklahoma Christian coach Lonny Cobble had three goals for the Eagles.
The first was to post a winning season – which wasn’t a given, considering OC went 8-34 in 2012. The second was to win 30 games. The third was to advance to the National Christian College Athletic Association World Series.
The Eagles accomplished goal No. 3 and will open pool play in the NCCAA event in suburban Cincinnati on Wednesday against Mount Vernon Nazarene (Ohio). With two wins this week, OC (25-23) will be assured of accomplishing goal No. 1. And goal No. 2 still technically is possible, if the Eagles pull off a few upsets along the way.
It wasn’t exactly the way Cobble pictured the season would go, but he can’t argue with the results, which have the Eagles as one of 10 teams still competing for the NCCAA crown.
“This is the only thing we have to play for for the next three years,” Cobble said. “That was the goal, to get there. We’ve gotten there and now we’ve got to try to refocus a little bit and just not be good enough to get there. Now we need to go win some games and establish ourselves as an NCCAA power.”
Starting pitcher Tyler Sturges, who transferred to OC from Kansas State, gave credit to Cobble for quickly turning the OC program into a winner, successfully blending returnees with a slew of transfers.
“We came with a bunch of people we played with before and a bunch of our friends,” Sturges said. “We knew it was going to be a lot of fun and we could try to do what we could for the program. It’s the way coach Cobble coaches. He was a good coach in high school and he’s a winning coach. He’s used to it. He knows what to do. If you give him the right people, he’ll put together a good team.”
In the NCCAA World Series, the 10 teams are divided into two five-team pools. Each team plays four pool games on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, with the top two teams in each pool moving on to the semifinal round on Friday night. The two semifinal winners play on Saturday afternoon for the championship.
It’s a schedule that figures to severely test a team’s pitching depth, but that depth has been the strength of the Eagles all season. OC has five proven starters in Cale Coshow (3-4, 3.88 ERA), Tyler Sturges (5-4, 3.29 ERA), Kelby Reneau (2-4, 4.60 ERA), Brock Werdel (3-4, 4.24 ERA) and Luke Sandoval (5-1, 2.89 ERA).
Ryan Nash (1-0, 2.96 ERA) has excelled in a middle-relief role and Chris Burgess (6-0, nine saves, 1.23 ERA), the Central Region Pitcher of the Year, is arguably the best closer in the NCCAA and is on pace to post the third-lowest single-season ERA in school history. The Eagles have a team ERA of 4.10.
The Eagles snapped out of a late-season offensive funk in the NCCAA Central Region tournament, winning three straight elimination games and scoring 26 runs in the process. It’s been a simple formula for OC all season – when the Eagles can score some runs, they usually have a good chance to win thanks to the strength of their pitching.
Senior outfielder Dillon Andrews (.385, 25 RBIs, 11 doubles) was the Central Region’s co-hitter of the year, while sophomore outfielder Jordan Lopez earned regional tournament MVP honors by hitting .545 with five RBIs, two doubles and a triple in the four games. Second baseman Cory Eastwood also had a batting average north of .500 during the tournament.
The Eagles are seeded ninth in the NCCAA World Series and are the lowest seed in their pool. They’ll open Wednesday at 4 p.m. Central time (5 p.m. local time) at Prasco Park against fourth-seeded Mount Vernon Nazarene (32-17), a squad that received an at-large bid to the tournament.
On Thursday, the Eagles will play top-seeded California Baptist (37-18) at noon at Legacy Field, then No. 8 seed Cedarville (Ohio) (28-16) at 3 p.m., also at Legacy Field. OC will wrap up pool play on Friday at 1 p.m. against No. 5 seed Southeastern (Fla.) (35-27), back at Prasco Park. There’s little to go on as far as scouting reports, as the Eagles didn’t share a common foe this season with any of those squads.
It’s a daunting task, but the Eagles have fared well against the best teams on their schedule, splitting a pair of games against NCAA Division II power St. Mary’s (Texas) and beating both Rogers State and York (Neb.), a pair of squads headed to the NAIA World Series. To be fair, the Eagles also have struggled at times against inferior foes, but they did win a postseason baseball title for the first time since 1972, when OC finished third in the NAIA World Series.
“It was just a matter of time before we put it all together,” Lopez said. “I was never worried. I thought this would be a 30-win season, for sure, but I think we’ll be fine. The farthest we could have got this year is where we’re going, so we’ll take it from there and good things will happen.”