As Oklahoma’s baseball team prepares to take the field next weekend, at Long Beach State, they are hoping 2017 is the year that returns them back to the NCAA Tournament. Pete Hughes is entering his fourth season as the Skipper for the Sooners and has quite possibly the most experienced group of returning players yet. Unlike in years past where Hughes has had to rely on incoming freshmen to produce immediately, his class of 2017 (17 players) will need to fill cracks rather than fill a roster after a host of freshmen played significant roles last season and return as experienced sophomores in 2017.
Power From The Plate
Sophomores Domenic DeRenzo and Steele Walker, along with seniors Austin O’Brien and Jack Flansburg will return power to Oklahoma’s lineup, with a combined twenty home runs recorded in 2016. Walker was a 2016 Freshman All American after an inaugural season that saw him tie a school record, for freshmen, with 17 doubles. Meanwhile Flansburgh was an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention after starting at all four infield positions in 2016.
DeRenzo set a freshman record with a slugging percentage of .592 (8 HR, 24 RBI) to earn honors as a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American.
Outfielder Blake Brewster, also a sophomore, drew four starts during his rookie campaign, but also made 24 appearances. He bombed his first career home run against Kansas State last may and, after spending the summer in Kansas (playing in the Jayhawk League) he’s looking to potentially breakout as a sophomore.
Third baseman Cade Harris recorded nine multi-hit games over 48 appearances last season and drew 30 walks which was the second most all-time by a freshman.
Junior third baseman Kyle Mendenhall knocked in 15 RBI for the Sooners in 2016 and was named as a Texas Collegiate Baseball League All-Star over the summer while playing for the Cane Cutters.
Chandler Wagoner returns to provide some depth behind the plate after making his Oklahoma debut on February 20th last season. The sophomore from Temecula, California posted .385 on base percentage as a rookie in 2016.
Then there’s Thomas Hughes who made 29 appearances (5 starts) in the infield as a freshman in 2016. Over the summer he was named a Futures Collegiate Baseball League All-Star, as a member of the Pittsfield Suns, after hitting .264 with 36 runs, 27 RBI and 11 doubles.
Maturity On The Mound
The, “Young but Experienced” movement isn’t just happening from the plate for the Sooners either. Oklahoma’s pitching staff is returning several youngsters who were forced to grow up on the job in 2016.
Ryan Madden drew three starts as a freshman in 2016, while also making seven other appearances. He posted a 4.50 ERA while striking out 14 batters. Madden picked up his first win against Fresno State on March 15.
Kyle Turner also drew three starts during his freshman season, with four other relief appearances. He wrapped up 2016 with a 2.12 ERA and 14 strikeouts.
It was Dylan Grove who helped Oklahoma bounce top-seeded Texas Tech from the Big 12 Tournament. As a freshman, last season, he posted a 3-1 record with 26 strikeouts and a 3.77 ERA.
Jake Irvin is potentially on tap to be Oklahoma’s ace after pacing the Sooner pitchers as a freshman in 2016 with a 6-2 record. Named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball News, Irvin produced a 4.47 ERA over his nine starts and fanned 51 batters.
JB Olson is one of the few seniors on Oklahoma’s pitching staff but he’s only in his second season at OU. As a transfer from Seward County (Kan.) Community College he posted 2.03 ERA over the course of 29 game appearances. He was one of the top relievers coming out of the bullpen last season and will no doubt play a valuable role with the pitching staff in 2017 as well.
Not Your Average Everyday Sophomores
Oklahoma suffered their growing pains last season when relying heavily on a freshman class that was ranked 13th nationally by Baseball America. Now it’s time for those youngsters to spread their wings and fly as they take vocal and physical leadership roles in 2017. Huges has been close to the dance the last two seasons, with a 4th place conference finish in 2015 and a 5th place finish with his freshmen thrown into the fire in 2016. It’s that experience of 2016 that will allow his group of “Super Sophomores” to take him to the NCAA for the first time since he was there with Virginia Tech in 2013. Coincidentally, that was also Oklahoma’s last appearance in the tournament as well, and it was the Sooners who sent the Hokies packing by a final of 10-4 in the regional championship.