CHICKASHA – Hours of practice, thousands of pitches and nearly four months of contests, the Drover baseball team earned their reward and the season’s No. 1 goal: The program’s first trip to the national tournament.
After are record-breaking season, the Drovers (40-17) are eager to play in the NAIA Baseball National Championship Opening Round, which is slated to begin Thursday at Oklahoma City University.
The Drovers’ first game is against (15) Sterling College (46-12), scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Thursday. Other teams in the opening-round bracket the Drovers could end up facing are Jamestown (N.D.) (28-9), Northwestern (Iowa) (31-17) and (2) Oklahoma City (47-11).
“They’re a good ball club,” USAO head coach Mike Ross said of Sterling. “They are ranked ahead of us on paper. They have some guys at the top of the lineup who can hit, and they can pitch … it should be a good match up.”
Should the Drovers win on Thursday, they will play again at 2:30 p.m. Friday. If USAO falls in Thursday’s game, the team will play at 11 a.m. Friday. The tournament is a double-elimination event.
This is the first time in school history the Drover baseball team has made it into the national tournament. The program has, however, competed in regional tournaments.
The NAIA Opening Round consists of 45 teams at nine different locations. The Drovers earned their spot at OCU, just 45 minutes up the road from their home field.
The Drovers are used to competing against some of the nation’s best talents considering the Sooner Athletic has four NAIA Top 25 teams and five conference schools are competing in the national tournament.
This week may seem familiar to the Drovers, as they played at OCU in the SAC Tournament just last week.
“We aren’t going out to do anything different. We just need to go out and play well, play the kind of baseball we played in the conference tournament,” Ross said. “We need to go out and not let the environment of the national tournament affect us in the negative way.”
In preparation, the Drovers have practiced Monday and Tuesday afternoon and had two scheduled practices Wednesday before the opening banquet on Wednesday evening.
“And then it will be time to play,” Ross said. “I don’t want to change anything up. It’s good for us in that we did this exact same thing last week — and here we are again.”
To keep the players calm, Ross said he continues to remind them to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience of competing on the national stage.
“It’s been keeping them motivated to play well, and also for them to enjoy it,” he said “This is the first time we have been there, and I told them, ‘don’t take it for granted. Enjoy every minute of it.’”
“Let’s see how long we can go,” Ross added.
Defeating the Warriors
The Sterling College Warriors have impressive stats this year. In addition to having two starters — Joe Battaglia and Joe Williams — batting higher than .400, they have a relief pitcher, Steven Cazares, with an ERA of 1.01. As a team, the Warriors have stolen 129 bases.
“The keys to the game for us are we need to pitch well and be able to control their running game,” Ross said. “When you have that many stolen bases, that’s obviously an integral part of their offense.”
In addition to strong defense, Ross said the Drovers will have to deliver at the plate to stay in the game.
“Offensively, we just need to go out and do what we do,” he said. “We are going to face a really good arm that isn’t going to beat itself so we just need to go out and beat it at the plate.”
While this is the first trip for the Drovers, all four of the other teams have made previously trips to the national tournament and Sterling played at OCU last year as well.
Being from the same conference, the Drovers faced OCU four times in the regular season and once in the SAC Tournament, and each time the Stars have found the win. OCU has been to five opening round tournaments and have won four.
“Every time we’ve played them, it’s just been a good game,” Ross said of the Stars. “One swing of the bat here or there determines the game.”
As for the other teams, Ross plans to scout the first game of the tournament, which takes place Thursday morning between Jamestown and Northwestern to get an idea of the talent and style of play.
“In baseball, you can dig through the stats and kind of sort out who the key players are and what you need to watch out for,” Ross said.
Watch the game
Being so close and playing on a familiar field, the Drovers have a unique advantage over three of the other teams in the bracket.
“From a coaching standpoint its great for me because … this is what we’ve done all year,” Ross said. “It isn’t anything new. We are used to it. It’s been the routine for the last three months.”
Ross is hoping to get at least 50 Drover fans out to the game to cheer on the team. Admission will be $8 for adults and $5 for students 18 years and under per session.
“The fact that we are in Oklahoma City and have the ability to have a lot of fans for us is good for us,” Ross said. “I would love to have enough fans out there to make it feel like a home game even if it’s not in Chickasha. I think that’s doable. Our all club is fun to watch.”
The teams are competing for a berth in the 57th annual NAIA World Series on May 24-31 in Lewiston, Idaho. The winner of each of the nine opening round tournaments and Lewis-Clark State will compete in the NAIA World Series.