Down the stretch in the Big 12, Oklahoma State’s projected weekend lineups routinely listed as many as 14 possible position players.
And that was just for the starting spots.
Cowboys coach Josh Holliday regularly made the most of his lineups, too, getting contributions from those 14 and more in a delicate balance of roster management that became OSU’s strength in a run to the program’s first regular season conference title since 1996 and its first during the Big 12 era.
Holliday, delivering the championship in just his second season as Cowboys coach, is The Oklahoman’s Big 12 Coach of the Year.
“He’s done a fantastic job,” said Cowboys outfielder Zach Fish. “He’s used guys in perfect situations, to where he knows they’re going to be able to do something to help the ball club. He always says if you work hard and you train hard, when you meet an opportunity, you’re going to be able to succeed.
“And you’re seeing that. We’re getting a lot of guys into ball games in different roles — guys coming off the bench and playing good defense, getting timely bunts and hits, young guys logging big-time innings …
“Everybody has a role. And the big thing for us, everybody’s embraced those roles. Coach Holliday has done a good job of putting everyone in positions to succeed.”
And succeed they have, reeling off seven straight league series wins to stand 41-14 overall entering Wednesday’s opening of the Big 12 Tournament at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark. Cowboys reliever Vince Wheeland, The Oklahoman’s Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, played a hefty role in OSU’s success, going 8-0 with a team-best 1.32 earned run average. Seven of his wins came in conference play.
TCU outfielder Boomer White is the Player of the Year, after sparking a once-scuffling Horned Frogs’ offense through April and May. Oklahoma third baseman Sheldon Neuse is the Freshman of the Year, after batting .290 as an everyday player for the Sooners.
Holliday played and served as an assistant coach at OSU, before a resume-building detour brought him back to Stillwater for his first head coaching gig last season. His first team went 41-19 and finished second in the Big 12 standings.
Now the Cowboys are the champs.
And collectively, truly, although directed by Holliday.
“He thinks your strength is in the depth of the team. And it really is,” said Cowboys senior Saulyer Saxon. “That’s something we have.
“This is the best team I’ve ever been on, in terms of chemistry and the quality of guys. Everybody’s buying in. Nobody’s selfish. Nobody’s pouting when they’re not getting their opportunities. Everybody’s happy. And it’s going pretty well for us right now.”
With Holliday pulling the strings — and all the right ones, it seems — 15 position players have played a minimum of 20 games and 13 have made double-digit starts. On the pitching side, 11 Cowboys have made at least 10 appearances and eight hurlers have made starts.
The roster management has mixed young and old, too, with veterans sharing time with pieces from a freshman class that ranked No. 4 nationally by Baseball America.
“It takes a special group of kids to understand roles and team, but this is definitely a group that does,” Holliday said. “They know what team means. We spend a lot of time developing that concept with them. One of our strengths is we have some versatility, some options we can use.
“We’re very lucky as coaches to have some kids with some leadership qualities who have embraced this and said, ‘Whatever my role is, I’ll do it the best that I can, because I care more about the team than I do about myself.’
“I’m incredibly proud of the way our older players have led, even if it hasn’t been in prominent roles, it’s been in a good way. It’s a good bunch of kids. It’s a team.”
All the maneuvering and massaging has worked.
The Cowboys are ranked as high as No. 7 nationally and in position to claim a host role for the NCAA Tournament. They showed a toughness reflective of Holliday’s personality as a three-time All-Big 12 performer, claiming 23 of their 41 wins in comeback fashion. OSU is also 11-0 in one-run games.
Holliday has passed Gary Ward (77 wins) for the best two-year start to a coaching career at OSU and now stands short of only his father Tom Holliday (86) on that chart.
And his players claim his impact extends well beyond the wins.
“He’s so good at breaking things down for you to understand better,” said senior Aaron Cornell. “He relates things to life a lot. He’s not as much about wins as losses as teaching young men how to grow up and go into life with greater expectations to succeed.
“He cares as much about academics and social life as he does the baseball side and getting a bunt down and doing things right like that. I think that’s probably one of the biggest things that no one really sees except the players, that makes him such a great coach and bonds the team with him and gets everybody on the same page.”