MASON, Ohio (May 13, 2014) – With Oklahoma Christian battling through an 8-34 season and a 25-game losing streak two years ago, OC teammates and roommates Garrett Stephenson and Caleb Price often had long discussions, each trying to help the other cope.
“We knew there was a reason for it,” Stephenson said this week. “God has a reason for everything. But we couldn’t see it. We thought there was nothing good that could come out of it.”
Fast forward to the present, with the Eagles riding high, setting a school record for wins in a season and entering the National Christian College Athletic Association World Series as the No. 1 overall seed. OC (37-15) will begin NCCAA play Wednesday at 1 p.m. Central time (2 p.m. Eastern) against Trinity Christian (Ill.) at Prasco Park.
“Now we look back on it and it has put college baseball in perspective,” Stephenson said. “It has made us appreciate this year, and last year, for what it is. We don’t take anything for granted now. Every win, we thoroughly enjoy it, because we know how precious they are.”
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the Eagles in two seasons under coach Lonny Cobble, with OC going 26-26 and reaching the NCCAA World Series last year for the program’s first postseason appearance in 41 years, then peaking down the stretch with an 11-game win streak entering this year ‘s national tournament.
No one is enjoying it more than the five remaining players from the 2012 squad – seniors Stephenson, Price and Ryan Nash and juniors Luke Sandoval and Kelby Reneau – because they know first-hand what it’s like on the other side of the ledger.
“I tell people all the time, during that season, there was never a more helpless feeling. It was just an awful, down to the very core feeling. I wouldn’t wish that feeling or experience on my worst enemy. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in sports. Having endured that, just to see our hard work paying off and to be able to be a part of a team as good as this team, we definitely know how much this means and how lucky we are to be a part of this.”
OC finished third this season in a challenging NCAA Division II league, the Heartland Conference, which has produced a Division II semifinalist each of the past two years. The Eagles finished the regular season ranked sixth in the Division II South Central Region poll, meaning had OC been eligible, it would have qualified for the Division II national tournament.
The Eagles swept through the 10-team, double-elimination NCCAA Central Region tournament last week and Cobble – like most around the OC program – figured his team would be seeded somewhere between third and sixth at the national tournament. When he saw the NCCAA World Series bracket on Sunday night, he took a big gulp when he saw OC was the No. 1 seed.
But he thinks his team is worthy of the high honor, pointing to a schedule that included three wins over current NAIA top-10 teams (Oklahoma Baptist and Oklahoma City University) as well as a series win over longtime NCAA Division II power St. Mary’s (Texas).
“People are giving us a lot of respect,” Cobble said. “That’s nice. But we’ve got to show up and play well. Being the No. 1 seed is exciting, but after the first pitch Wednesday, you’ve got to throw that out. Everyone here is good or they wouldn’t be here.”
In the NCCAA World Series, the 10 teams are separated into two five-team pools and each team plays every other team in its pool. The top two teams in each pool advance to semifinals on Friday, with those winners playing on Saturday for the national championship.
After playing eighth-seeded Trinity Christian, OC will return to Prasco Park for a 7 p.m. Wednesday game against fifth-seeded Bluefield (Va.). On Thursday, the Eagles will play next door at Legacy Field against ninth-seeded Shorter (Ga.) at noon and fourth-seeded Fresno Pacific (Calif.) at 6 p.m.
The top teams in the other pool are two Tennessee squads, second-seeded Trevecca Nazarene and third-seeded Lee.
Teams could play as many as six games in a four-day span, a schedule that would challenge even the deepest of pitching staffs. Cobble is aware of that, but also confident that he has a deep, experienced staff.
Ace starter Brandon Pierce (10-3, 2.79 ERA) and closer Dillon Endecott (13 saves, 1.54 ERA) – both first-team All-Heartland Conference picks – are the headliners, but the Eagles have five players (Pierce, Sandoval, Reneau and seniors Tyler Sturges and Kacy Cook – who each have started at least seven games this season. The return to form of two of them – Reneau and Sturges – during the regional tournament would seem to bode well for OC.
The Eagles also have a capable bullpen that’s able to eat up innings if necessary and, if OC is trailing, to buy time for OC to rally on offense.
OC also has experience in the field, with an all-senior starting infield led by all-conference first-team pick Blake Stringer at first base and an outfield led by another first-team all-conference selection, junior Jordan Lopez. The Eagles also have flexibility at catcher, with junior Caden Cleveland and senior Cameron Keener able to match up, depending on if OC is facing a left-handed or right-handed pitcher.
The Eagles also gained invaluable experience from playing in last year’s NCCAA World Series, Cobble said. OC is one of only two teams – along with Cedarville (Ohio) – making a return trip this year.
“Our boys last year, after playing in the regional, we were caught off guard about how good this tournament really is,” Cobble said. “I know people go, ‘It’s the NCCAA,’ but there are some really good teams here that could beat anybody at any time. Until you’ve been here, you don’t respect this tournament for what it is. I was amazed at how well it was run and how good the teams were.”
He’s counting on his returning players to pass that message along to their teammates, enjoying the fact he’s got a veteran squad that can do that. He’s also enjoying the experience of watching the 2012 quintet being able to savor the fruits of their labors.
“That’s been a lot of fun,” Cobble said. “I’m glad for the boys that are still here on that were on that (2012) team, who are taking it all in and having a good time. They are excited where the program is at. It means something to them, and to me, because they’re proud to be OC Eagles. I’ve had a couple of them tell me how much fun it’s been and they’re glad they stayed and glad we’re having that success. That means a lot to me right there.”
Stephenson said it would be extra special for not only the 2012 crew, but the entire 15-man senior class, to go out on top.
“Every game we play, we feel like we should win,” Stephenson said. “We didn’t dogpile after we won the regional this year because we expected to win it. It’s not something that we felt we’d achieved something. It wasn’t where we were finishing. It’s definitely been a strange turnaround (since 2012). For it to be so quick was unbelievable, but going through that valley makes you appreciate what we have right now.”