The scenario this season is not much different than the challenge put in front of the Oklahoma baseball team on the eve of the Big 12 Championship last year.
The Sooners have to win the whole show or miss out in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season – the first time that Oklahoma will have gone two years without a berth since 1981.
The difference between this year’s team and last year’s is that while Oklahoma still has to win the entire tournament to reach the next round, the Sooners feel that they can do just that – unlike the bad feeling before last season’s tournament.
“We definitely have a better feeling going in to this year’s tournament as opposed to last year’s,” Oklahoma second baseman and possible Big 12 Player of the Year candidate Kolbey Carpenter said. “Last year, the mood wasn’t good. . . .This year, everybody seems relaxed and focused and ready to go and win. We just have to put it all together.”
Shortstop Sheldon Neuse echoed those remarks. After a series sweep at the hands of No. 3 TCU, when the gap was just five runs in three games, the Sooners know that they can play with just about any team.
It’s about finding the right momentum and putting together the right game as third-seeded Oklahoma (32-25, 13-11 Big 12) begins play at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday against Kansas State at ONEOK Field in Tulsa.
“We just have to put it all together,” said Neuse, who recorded the game-winning hit in the Sooners’ only tournament victory last season. “We scored a bunch of runs, and we pitched well. We just didn’t get the wins. I think we can take some positives out of that series, even though we got swept. We just have to put it all together this week and go out there and win.”
Oklahoma, which carries an RPI of 75, likely won’t make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid. In fact, the Big 12 Conference will probably only send two teams to the postseason – the lowest number in conference history.
The league has sent less than four only once since its inception in 1999.
With so few practice hours left and less than 36 hours before the tournament begins, the questions remains of whether Oklahoma has enough time to “put it all together.”
There were flashes against TCU – a couple dominant offensive performances against the nation’s top pitching staff and a stout effort on the mound by Alec Hansen and Adam Choplick in the series finale.
Finding the right mojo isn’t something that can be rushed or forced, though. It’s about doing the little things and staying focused, Carpenter said.
“I think it’s mainly just focus,” he said. “Everyone needs to be focused and on the same page. . . . That’s how good teams win. Knowing they have each others’ backs and going out there and putting it all together.”
A team outside the top 3 has won the Big 12 Championship eight times in the past 16 years, and an outright No. 1 or No. 2 seed has won it just five times since 1999.
“We’ve got a shot to win this thing,” Neuse said. “We’ve got a shot to go a really long way.”
There are seven players on the roster now who played a key role in Oklahoma’s run to win the Big 12 postseason championship two years ago. Center fielder Craig Aikin was a starter for the Sooners, and catcher Anthony Hermelyn was an All-Tournament selection.
Neuse thinks Oklahoma is just a minor tweak or two from having a chance to make another deep run in the tournament. He called Oklahoma, “the team to watch.”
“We belong,” Neuse said. “We belong with anybody else on the field. The mentality going in to this tournament is to just take it one game at a time. No matter who is across the field, we have a chance to win the game. That’s how we feel in this dugout. That’s the way we’re going to feel in this whole tournament.”