NOBLE — Derek Underwood has been waiting for this moment for years.
Thursday, the wait will be over as he is slated to take the mound for Noble in its first baseball state tournament appearance since 1996.
“This is huge for me and for our team,” Underwood said. “We're wanting to make a statement for Noble baseball.”
The Bears have been making statements all year.
A solid performance last year led to a breakout season this year — a 32-4 record, a district title and plenty of other accomplishments.
Now, Noble makes its return to the state tournament Thursday, opening the 5A tournament against Deer Creek at 11 a.m. at Edmond Santa Fe.
“Every at-bat I've ever had, every time I've gone out to the mound, has been building up to this,” Jimmy Wood said. “This means everything to everyone on this team. Everyone wants this. This is what we're about.”
Wood, Underwood and Brady Bradshaw have been big reasons for the Bears' resurgence.
“It starts with throwing strikes and playing great defense behind them,” Noble coach Brad Anglin said. “Those three guys have been doing their jobs all year on the mound.”
In the season's first 13 games, 12 times Noble held opponents to two runs or less. Just 10 times this year did Noble give up more than two runs.
That hot start got the Bears rolling to this point, but it started two summers ago, when Noble's summer-league team went undefeated. The bulk of that team is the group that helped get Noble to this point.
“It was about teaching them how to win,” Anglin said. “They had the talent but winning can become a habit and we needed to learn how to handle success.”
The Bears were also helped by moving to an east-side district. The Bears still had tough district opponents — they swept Pryor and McAlester in district play — but they moved away from longtime powers Carl Albert and Guthrie. The move helped Noble start fresh against new teams and gain confidence.
“We looked at every game before regionals started as just practice,” Wood said. “It doesn't matter who shows up in the other dugout, we were just looking to get better.”
That started with solid pitching and strong defense.
Underwood isn't overpowering but mixes up his speeds to keep hitters off-balance. He isn't afraid to throw off-speed pitches in fastball counts and gives hitters fits with his slider.
Bradshaw can be overpowering with his fastball and can locate the pitch on both corners.
Wood, the team's lone senior, has primarily served as the Bears' closer and takes an aggressive approach on the mound.
“I've had more confidence in the guys behind me,” Underwood said. “Once that confidence came, it got a lot easier to get hitters out.”
Nobody is more thrilled to have Noble back in the state baseball tournament than Anglin.
The last time Noble made the tournament, in 1995, Anglin was a student at Noble.
“This is my dream job,” said Anglin, who is in his sixth season coaching the Bears. “This means a lot to get back here. When I graduated, the program was pretty successful and it went through some down years. We've just been looking for the opportunity to get back.”
Celebrating the regional championship and the state tournament berth was big.
“We worked so hard for that moment and this, to get to the state tournament,” Bradshaw said. “But we've still got plenty of work to do.”