Golden Eagles Persevere, Prepare for Stretch Run
According to ORU Head Coach Ryan Folmar, the dream of postseason glory is still alive for his battle-tested group. “All of the goals that we had at the start of the year - winning a conference championship, going to a Regional, advancing in the NCAA Tournament - are still well within our grasp,” says the first-year Golden Eagle skipper.
Those dreams seemed to dim a bit throughout the first two months of the season, as difficult a stretch as any Golden Eagle squad has ever endured. A rash of injuries and a brutal schedule led to a program-record 11-game losing streak and dropped Folmar’s club to 5-15 on March 20.
“One word sums up the first part of the season, and that's 'struggle,'” says junior pitcher Alex Gonzalez. “The biggest factor in the losing streak was the injuries that we were going through,” he added.
Indeed, the injury bug has devastated the seasons of newcomers Audie Afenir and Joey Migliaccio while hampering the contributions of veterans like Drew Bowen, Jose Trevino, Brandon Healy and Kurt Giller, among others. “We've battled through adversity on the injury front all year long,” says Folmar. “We've had to juggle the lineup and the rotation a lot more than we would like.”
A schedule loaded with elite competition provided little opportunity
for the struggling group to pick up easy victories. ORU’s non-conference slate included three-game sets with nationally-ranked clubs from Cal State Fullerton and Oklahoma, as well as matchups with Atlantic 10 leader Saint Louis, Missouri Valley Conference leader Wichita State and Big 12 heavyweights Oklahoma State and Texas.
Despite the setbacks, Folmar sees the grueling schedule as a blessing. “Playing such a difficult non-conference schedule exposed us in a lot of areas,” Folmar reflected. “When you're exposed, you're able to identify weaknesses on your team and attack them, and I think we've done that. We have played much better inside our league than we did outside our league."
The coach is right; ORU has been a much better team since the start of Southland Conference play. ORU is 10-8 in the league, lodged in a tied for 4th place but just two games back of league leaders Lamar and Sam Houston State. The Golden Eagles have batted .269 in conference games, 27 points higher than their cumulative mark, and their 3.02 in-conference ERA is almost a full run lower than the season average of 3.92.
Gonzalez looks back on ORU’s first Southland series, a three-game sweep of nationally-ranked Central Arkansas in late March, as the moment things started to click for the ORU squad. “That was probably the biggest turning point of the season,” says the junior hurler. “It was the first weekend of conference play, and we knew we had to turn things around at that moment.”
Folmar credits shortstop Nate Goro as one of the biggest reasons that Golden Eagles were able to hold it together during some of the season’s rockier moments. The senior struggled at the plate in 2012, batting just .219, but he’s raised his average to .265 in 2013, with several timely hits leading directly to victories.
“Nate came out on fire this year, especially when we were scuffling,” says Folmar. “He kept us in every game with some big hits."
“We just try to stay positive and keep working hard,” Goro says when asked about the mindset he’s tried to share with his teammates. “We had to remember that we weren't playing slouches and keep our minds on the goals we had at the end of the season.”
The plethora of injuries has provided several opportunities for newer Golden Eagles to take on expanded roles. Among that group, Folmar says that junior utility man Austen Colt has been a revelation, playing three positions and batting .299 in conference play.
“Colt has played a lot of different roles for us; he's hitting almost .300 in conference games and he's come up with some big hits for us over the past couple of weeks,” Folmar says. “He's a guy that has really risen to the occasion and has solidified several spots for us.”
“I knew the team would need me,” says Colt, who has played both corner outfield spots along with 3rd base. “When guys go down, someone has to step up and fill that spot. I looked at it as an opportunity to contribute and help the team.”
A turnaround would be impossible without the lockdown performance of Gonzalez at the top of the pitching rotation. ORU’s Friday starter, projected by many scouting services as an early-round pick in June’s Major League Baseball draft, is the clear favorite for Southland Pitcher of the Year honors with a 5-0 record and a 2.00 ERA in league play. For the season, he leads the conference and ranks 4th in the NCAA with 94 strikeouts.
“Alex has been the guy that you hand the ball to and you know he's going to give you a chance to win the game,” says Folmar. “He's been as consistent a guy as we've ever run out there on a Friday night.”
Thanks to contributions from guys like Goro and Colt and the untouchable pitching efforts of Gonzalez, ORU has won each of their last three Southland Conference weekend series to climb within striking distance of a league title. While the road ahead is tough, starting with this weekend’s set against Lamar and concluding with the Southland Conference Tournament from May 22-25, the Golden Eagles have fought through difficult times and stand ready to renew their annual summer tradition: playing in an NCAA Regional.
“Even to this day, all of our goals are still reachable,” says Goro. “We're right where we need to be at the end of the year.”