Zach Crabtree knows his baseball team doesn't have the best park in the world.
The playing surface is great — “As good as anybody we play,” he says — but the rest of the Murray State facility is average. The bleachers could be nicer. The locker room could be spiffier.
“We just have the more blue-collar-type facility,” Crabtree said.
Ditto for his program.
No bells. No whistles. No frills.
But this season, no one was better.
Earlier this month, Murray State won the NJCAA Division II national title. It was the first national championship of any kind in the 100-plus-year history of the Tishomingo junior college.
The Aggies won without a bunch of superstars. They were second in the nation in home runs but only had two guys hit 10 or more. They were solid on the mound but didn't have anyone win more than eight games.
“This team,” pitching coach Lloyd Gage said, “was the definition of a team.”
When Crabtree and Gage arrived at the southeastern Oklahoma school three years ago, the Aggies were almost as far as you could get from championship-caliber. The program was only a year removed from not having enough players to compete in the conference tournament at the end of the year.
Getting competitive was going to be tough, much less winning a national title.
To complicate matters, Murray State is in a rugged conference, NJCAA's Region 2. Western Oklahoma State has been a national powerhouse for the better part of a decade. Redlands Community College is always stout.
Makes it tough to get any traction.
But in their first year, Murray won a school-record 36 games.
The next year, Murray improved that record to 40 wins and won the regular-season conference title, a first in school history.
This year, it finished second during the regular season but won the conference tournament.
“We knew we could compete with anybody,” Crabtree said, “because of how good our conference was.”
And compete, they did.
The Aggies won regionals and super regionals, rolling through both to advance to the world series for the first time in school history.
Playing in Enid, they scuffled through the first three games, battling nerves, tough competition and a stiff Oklahoma wind blowing into the hitters' faces. Guys tried to make adjustments and change their swings instead of just hitting the ball hard.
Murray still won two of its first three games.
Then, it settled in and played some of its best ball of the season. A couple more wins put it in the national championship game vs. LSU-Eunice, which had won four of the last seven national titles.
Murray went to Eunice early in the season for a three-game series and lost all three games.
The Aggies got on the bus — they call it The Aggie Wagon — for the eight-hour ride home feeling awful.
“That's who we've got to beat,” Crabtree told them. “Those are the guys. That's where you measure where you're at, and we've got a ways to go.”
Murray State left Eunice with an 8-9 record.
The Aggies won 40 of their next 51 games, the last of them coming with a 4-3 victory against Eunice in the national championship game.
It was the first national title in any sport for Murray State.
“It was a lot of fun getting to see the guys dog pile and all that stuff after all their hard work,” Crabtree said. “I mean, it's rewarding to see those guys and what they've put in.”
This is a team filled with great individual stories. Outfielder Brandon Grimsley didn't play the first 30-plus games of the season, but after getting his chance, he didn't come out of the lineup. Pitcher Michael Barnhart played with a torn ACL. Second baseman Colt Pickens battled through a broken wrist.
Chalk it up to following the leader.
Crabtree does whatever needs to be done, and that includes driving the bus. That's not some sort of simile. That's reality. No matter how long the road trip, the coach is the one behind the wheel of The Aggie Wagon.
During the coaches' meeting at the world series, tournament organizers spent some time talking about game passes for bus drivers. Crabtree and Gage couldn't help snickering.
Even though the rest of the teams had fancy charter buses and professional drivers, Crabtree didn't mind his additional duty.
“He's a hard worker,” Gage said, “and he gets his kids to buy in.”
A blue-collar coach has built a blue-collar team that plays in a blue-collar facility, and this season, they were golden.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.