Oklahoma Sooners coach looked at the Sooners’ schedule from last year and saw a team that finished with 37 victories but missed out on an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Shortstop Sheldon Neuse occasionally went two weeks last year without seeing a fastball, and it took Oklahoma’s best offensive player out of games and series.
Both knew that something had to change.
Hughes put together a schedule for 2016 that was “RPI-driven” and features 31 games away from Norman, built on a selection system that Hughes said isn’t going to change.
Neuse put in extra work to try and improve a .275 batting average from last season. He’ll need to be better because Oklahoma lost its top five batters – those players around Neuse that helped disguised his cold stretches.
New faces and fewer home games: Things are going to look a little bit different in Norman this season.
“We didn’t win enough games last year, but the scheduling didn’t help us,” Hughes said. “You look across the country. You look at the teams that got at-large bids, especially the northern teams, you look at their schedule, and it’s predominantly away games. That’s what they’re making us do. . . . I think we’ve got the right group of guys that can handle going on the road like that.”
A March series against Cal-State Bakersfield was moved from Norman to California, and Hughes added a road game against Fresno State around the series. A late-season series against Austin Peay – scheduled to be played at Oklahoma’s renovated stadium – is now a road series.
Hughes said that Oklahoma might be playing a program record for road games this season.
“We could play all home games and win every one of them, and no one’s going to talk about a thing,” Hughes said. “So, we have to play better to win more games, period. But I think it’s good for us to get on the road anyways. I think it makes for a tougher team, and I think it makes your team in the postseason a lot tougher. That schedule’s RPI-drive, no question about that.”
With just four seniors on the roster and only one position player with more than 50 games started last year, Oklahoma has to make sure it has the team to go on the road for long stretches, including a seven-game stretch to end the season and a three-week stretch at the end of March.
As the lone player who played the whole season, Neuse will have to be more consistent. He can’t shy away for an entire series. He’ll have a few familiar faces around him but plenty of new players.
Outfielders Hunter Haley and Alex Wise both return from injury-shortened seasons last year and could give something the Sooners didn’t have last year – speed and athleticism on the base paths. Cody Thomas will play baseball full-time this year, and Hughes said that Thomas’ leadership is huge.
“If Cody doesn’t play an inning for us, our team’s better because of who he is and what he brings to our clubhouse as far as toughness, team-first guy, character’s great,” Hughes said. “All that stuff will make us better. He’s a leader.”
Oklahoma lost long-time catcher Anthony Hermelyn will be replaced by a trio: Talented freshman Domenic DeRenzo, Omaha-experienced and UC-Irvine transfer Renae Martinez and Chandler Wagoner, who Hughes said is the most improved player on the team.
The Sooners have nine outfielders in the mix for starting spots and a total of 14 freshmen.
“They’re no longer freshmen in our program, so they have to perform at a high level according to their skill set,” Hughes said. “When I have those new faces, you just want to get those guys acclimated so they can help you. . . . Now, we’re just trying to figure out who’s going to win jobs and who’s going to win spots.”