NORMAN — Pete Hughes has already figured out a few things about Oklahoma.
“I've been in Oklahoma for a little over six months, and the weather dominates every conversation, whether it's too hot, too windy or too cold,” the first-year OU baseball coach said.
Hughes has also learned that his team must be built around the variety of conditions.
“From what I hear, early in the season the wind's blowing in and when it gets warm, it blows out,” Hughes said. “You better be flexible in what you're doing offensively. If the wind's blowing in, you better be able to execute the small game and move runners along and bunt and get people in scoring position and hit and run and steal and all that other stuff.”
Despite losing 44 starts from the pitching rotation, including two of the best starters in the country in Jonathan Gray and Dillon Overton, two of their best hitters in Max White and Matt Oberste, and most of their infield, Hughes is looking forward to his inaugural season with the Sooners.
The Sooners open their season at 3 p.m. Friday at L. Dale Mitchell Park against Seton Hall.
Hughes and his staff, which includes former Division I coaches Jamie Pinzino and Mike Anderson, have tried to make the transition from the Sunny Golloway-era as easy as possible. Golloway left after last season to take the head job at Auburn.
“It's been a smooth adjustment,” second baseman Hector Lorenzana said. “I love our new coaches. They're great leaders.”
Lorenzana is the only returner on the infield.
Pinzino, OU's pitching coach, comes to the Sooners after a season as head coach at William & Mary.
He'll have to deal with a whole new rotation. Going into the first weekend, OU will use sophomores Jacob Evans and Adam Choplick and freshman Jake Elliott.
“He's the kind of guy that's not going to feel his way through a situation,” Hughes said of Pinzino. “He's fully entrenched. I'm just so fortunate to have three guys that have been head coaches at the Division I level on our staff, and our volunteer was a full-time Division I assistant.
“It's got to be the best staff in the country, and I couldn't be happier with the accessibility I have to them to pick their brain on a daily basis. But the fact that our kids get to be coached by guys with unbelievable resumes of success, I think it'll show through in June how good our coaching staff is.”
After a nonconference schedule that includes trips to Arizona and Florida as well as a nonconference game against TCU, the Sooners open Big 12 play March 21 .
“I look forward to getting into a league I honestly know nothing about,” Hughes said. “I've admired it from afar. To be able to be entrenched in such traditions as Bedlam and the series with Texas and to coach against one of the best coaches to ever coach this game is exciting to me.”
OU BASEBALL AT A GLANCE
Coach: Pete Hughes, first season.
Last year: 43-21, 13-11 Big 12 (third).
Glad he's back: Hector Lorenzana made a big impression on both offense and defense last season. At the plate, Lorenzana hit .274 with 42 RBIs and 33 runs scored. He also came up with several critical hits during the Big 12 Tournament and NCAA Regionals. Lorenzana is also expected to anchor the infield at second base.
Most missed: Jonathan Gray turned into one of the best starters in the country last season and was rewarded as such in the draft, being picked third overall by the Rockies. Gray was 10-3 with a 1.64 ERA, 147 strikeouts and 24 walks in 126 1/3 innings last season. Gray isn't the only big-time starter the Sooners must replace. Dillon Overton was 9-3 with a 3.02 ERA.
Major addition: Freshmen Niko Buentello (Lewisville, Texas) and Austin O'Brien (Owasso) figure to platoon at first base, and both have the ability to spend time at designated hitter when the other is in the field. Both could be middle-of-the-order hitters right off the bat.
On the spot: As a freshman, Ralph Garza was one of the most consistent bullpen arms for the Sooners, with a 5-1 record and 2.76 ERA. Garza will remain in the bullpen for the most part but will like assume a more critical role with last year's closer, Jacob Evans, moving into the rotation.
X-factor: Junior Mac James has been more than solid during the spring, allowing Hughes the flexibility to use him behind the plate on a regular basis to give Anthony Hermelyn some much-needed time off from behind the plate. Hermelyn said that James would be able to keep him fresh, especially in the heat late in the season.
Touch 'em all: The Sooners were the favorites in the Big 12 last season with Gray and Overton at the top of the rotation. There isn't nearly as much pressure this season as Hughes settles in and has a much younger team than a year ago. The coaches picked the Sooners to finish fifth. If the Sooners are to exceed those expectations, they'll have to have several unproven pitchers emerge and be solid defensively. Offensively, they likely won't be one of the top power teams in the league. However, with Craig Aikin, Hermelyn and Lorenzana back, the Sooners should be able to produce runs even without a lot of long balls.