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Oklahoma Baseball Season Ends, Legacy’s Will Remain

By: Dave Myrick

Oklahoma’s season came to an end at the Dale on a late Monday night in June. I can get into stats, what went wrong, what didn’t go right, who’s to blame, who’s not to blame, and the like, but I’m not going to. Instead, I am choosing to focus on what has been built by a special group of guys.

What is a footprint left in sports ? Collegiate athletics in particular ? Nowadays, it equates to a feather left on top of an Oklahoma house in May… With so many rennaplayers we see annually, you don’t have time to blink and learn jersey numbers, let alone see what impact a player had, or didn’t have on a program.

That will not be the case for Oklahoma’s “Omaha core”. The group that remained after the upperclassmen who led Oklahoma to the College World Series in 2022, departed.

Oklahoma second basemen Jackson Nicklaus

Bright futures all, but there was no doubt a little too much was put on their shoulders last season. After Oklahoma lost their entire weekend rotation, late reliever, and closer. Not to mention pro-ball guys in Jimmy Crooks, Peyton Graham and Brett Squires. The sophomore slump is real, on top of expectations of Omaha or bust, of a program viewed nationally as good, not great. And it showed, as the freshman class who had excelled as role players struggled to be the IT guys in the place of all the weapons who had departed.

What is Oklahoma baseball ? How is it viewed ? ESPN’s Mike Rooney and I spoke in Arlington at the Big Twelve tournament a few weeks ago. “Good. They’re good. I don’t know how that will translate to the SEC, I think the best version of them will play with about anyone.” Greg Swindell, who covers, well covered Texas on the LHN told me last year “Yea they can play. Skip will get his pitchers ready.” Ben McDonald, former LSU and college great, also with ESPN “yea they’re a team that can always beat ya.”… After a while a theme becomes clear, they’ve earned respect… but they’re not considered an elite college baseball program. Even with a more recent appearance, and national title itself in 1994, than their neighbor to the north who is renowned coast to coast as an “elite college baseball school” in Oklahoma State.

But how can that be ? With more current on the field success nationally ? The answer is complex. And it’s somewhere between a bad hire after Larry Cochell & Sunny Golloway, middling interest from a fan-base, and poor facilities outside of a decent stadium. Perception. That is the real answer. Too many stretches of blah. Too many times out of the national or even conference spotlight. And don’t get me wrong, there is one constant theme to everyone I interview or talk to about OU baseball, it’s still respected. I think they understand, OU baseball is/was always a few things off from being that elite college baseball team…

So how do you get there ? How do you put yourself in a spot to be considered one of the top 25 programs in the nation, annually ? How do you get to A&M’s level of feared at home, nobody looking forward to that three game set at your place ? This answer is also complex, yes donors and facilities… but it starts with footprints. Building blocks. You have to have, and yes this is old school speak, but you have to have guys who care more about the program, than themselves. You have to have freshman be alright with their first collegiate at bat being in front of fifty people on a freezing day in Norman… you have to have guys, dudes, like Jackson Nicklaus, John Spikerman & Kendall Pettis. Beyond character, you also need them to be insanely talented. As the aforementioned attitudes are great, but if you don’t win along the way, unfortunately it is for not.

Oklahoma didn’t have to worry about any of the above with the Omaha core group of guys. After sophomore seasons of trying to find their way as THE guys in the lineup, John Spikerman and Jackson Nicklaus emerged as two of the most dangerous and steadying presences in the Oklahoma lineup. Ups and downs along the way, injuries, slumps, of course. This is baseball. But it gets back to what I mentioned in loving a program, wanting to see it succeed. That drive, along with the drive to do well individually, blocking out the noise along the way… THAT, is how you get *there*. You need dudes. Dudes that check every box I have listed.

Kendall Pettis, or “uncle Kenny” as he’s known around the club-house, has been at Oklahoma for what seems like a decade. Pretty dang close at six years I believe. He was close to what I, and many others believe was going to be an elite team in 20′. Before a virus that started halfway around the globe shut down baseball in Norman, Oklahoma.

From that point on, he has been a steadying presence. No, not in the lineup, in the program itself. A leader, who does everything right that anyone and everyone can look to on how to be a collegiate athlete. On top of appearing in Sporstcenter top 10 plays weekly for superman catches throughout the season. This, is also something an elite baseball program has to have. Leadership.

It’s June, 2022. Oklahoma baseball is in the swamp. Gainesville Florida. And things are not going well. The Gators are leading, even after a Kendall Pettis home-run ties the game at one. They have the momentum, and the crowd, and an insanely talented team by the way. In a regional final game that has seen upstart Oklahoma make, but looks as though things are finally going to be as it should. The mighty SEC will put the Big Twelve in its place, and move on to the supers. Thunder…lightning. A delay. Call it divine intervention, call it good timing, whatever the label it stopped a Florida rally. Trailing 3-1, Oklahoma hung out in the dugout awaiting restart. A famous wrestling match occurred, though the details are mum on with who…

In the top of the eighth when play resumed, a freshman named John Spikerman would single. Not thought of at the time to be earth shattering…until Peyton Graham sent one to the fans in left field tying the game. Later in the same top half of that inning, another freshman, Jackson Nicklaus would single in Tanner Treadaway, providing a much needed insurance run that put Oklahoma up 5-3. Three outs later OU was on their way to a super regional match with Virginia Tech. And later a national final in Omaha.

That’s great, and needed, but you have to sustain it. In 2012 Oklahoma made the CWS, but then fell back into that middling area after a few different coaches.

Enter Skip Johnson. He is a pitching guy, first and foremost. Don’t get it twisted, that’s his love. He knows this, and is why he brought in an offensive guru and former New York Yankee assistant Reggie Willits. The two, along with new coach this season Todd Butler, have become one of the best staffs around top to bottom. With recruiting, pitching, and hitting. And the occasional hunting story. The pieces are there, and built. Coach Willits, also has some kids that can play a little bit, and now take the torch from those who have carried it this far.

Oklahoma head baseball coach Skip Johnson looks on during the third inning of an NCAA college baseball super regional game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Friday, June 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Gentry)

Back to sustaining. After a CWS run, we all said just make the tournament a season ago, and it’s a victory. May have been by the skin of their teeth, but they did. This year, I can only speak for myself, but looking at the roster and what was brought in, I predicted OU to host a regional, and it would be a great season. They did. I didn’t see six conference sweeps coming, 40 wins or the outright conference champs ( I picked them second ), but that’s what they did. That** is how you build yourself into an elite program. Blocks, sustaining success. Year after year while retaining staffs.

Also have to shout out guys like Bryce Madron, Anthony Mackenzie, Easton Carmichael and the like. They have helped build what’s been established in Norman the last three seasons as much as anyone, they don’t have anywhere near the success they do without them. As well as seniors Carter Campbell, Carson Atwood, Will Carston and Mike Snyder. But Mack, Mads and EC helped/are helping pass the torch as much as anyone listed. Now Spike, Nicklaus, Pettis…pass the torch to guys like Jaxon Willits. And Easton Carmichael, who should be a Golden Spikes candidate next season. Jason Walk, Isiah Lane… become the next to pick it up and go into unknown territory, the Southeastern Conference. But after what the core has built, they are in great shape to do so.

Jackson Nicklaus’s first at bat inside the Dale, had roughly fifty people in attendance on a cold February day against Wichita State. His last at bat ? Had over five thousand people in June, in an NCAA regional Oklahoma was hosting at the old ballpark. First time in almost a decade this has happened. That alone should tell Nicklaus, Spike, KP and the rest what they have helped build during their time at Oklahoma. They will be missed if that was indeed the last game they dawn in crimson and cream…but their legacy is not going anywhere.