Shagging fly balls near the left-field corner at Kansas State’s Tointon Family Stadium, Aaron Cornell chatted with a few local fans who offered a puzzling message.
“Glad to see you guys are back,” one K-State fan told the Cowboys senior.
Back? Back from where?
“This is the O-State team that people remember,” the man continued.
Then it clicked for Cornell.
“I didn’t keep up with it as a kid,” said Cornell, a Roff High School product, “but I’ve heard all the stories the past couple years of being here, all the great players and the dynasty that was here.
“That guy saying that to me kind of flipped a switch in me to take in what we’re doing right now.”
Indeed, Oklahoma State is back – back atop the Big 12, a seat once reserved for the boys in orange in black, if long ago in a Big Eight Conference feeling so far, far away.
And the Cowboys may just be back for good.
The Big 12 offers rugged terrain, a conference deeper and better than the old Big Eight. And college baseball’s landscape has changed dramatically. So winning like the Cowboys did under Gary Ward — a combined 33 regular-season and conference tournament championships — is all but impossible. Winning at all is a challenge.
Still, take notice of what OSU has done in just two seasons under coach Josh Holliday, finishing runner-up a year ago in his debut, before winning the 2014 regular-season title and carrying the No. 1 seed into Wednesday’s Big 12 Tournament matchup against Oklahoma.
“In your second year here,” Texas’ Augie Garrido said to Holliday Tuesday during the Big 12 Tournament press conference, “awesome.”
Garrido knows something about the Big 12, and about winning, standing as the nation’s all-time winningest coach with 1,910 career victories. Knows something about guys in the opposite dugouts, too.
And he’s impressed with Holliday, who has taken a mixture of holdovers and his own recruits and molded a team with clear chemistry and toughness. Holliday’s skills as a teacher, motivator and manager have earned high praise from OSU’s players.
The Cowboys pitch and hit and play defense. And they do the little things, too, like moving runners into scoring position and battling for nine innings, key factors in 23 come-from-behind wins and an 11-0 record in one-run games.
“What I notice about the program is the level of teamwork and confidence they have as a result of his tutoring and his assistant coaches. His staff is very strong, too,” Garrido said.
“Josh just has the total package you need to be highly successful. And he has the personality and the intelligence to go along with it. And he’s a tireless worker.”
Garrido said that Holliday has been prepared “from birth” for this, growing up around the ballpark, then playing for Ward and his father Tom at OSU, before serving apprenticeships as an assistant at power programs like OSU, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Arizona State and Vanderbilt.
“He is well-prepared to be successful at a very high level,” Garrido said. “So it’s no surprise, what he’s done, because he’s also passionate about the players.
“And he’s going to be successful for a long time.”
On many fronts, Holliday is still just getting started.
He’s playing this season with his first full recruiting class, a group ranked No. 4 nationally by Baseball America that figures to form the base for the next few seasons. Along with a staff that features notable coaches and recruiters in Rob Walton and Marty Lees, the chase is on for even more premium talent, which the Cowboys are collecting and stacking like chips at a poker table.
There’s also the issue of a new facility.
OSU athletic director Mike Holder insists a new stadium remains a priority. A big-money donor interested in kick-starting the project with a $15-17 million naming rights contribution would fast-track the $30-35 million plan to replace aging Allie P. Reynolds Stadium.
Maybe Holliday’s two-year record of production, along with the promise of what’s next, will be just the fuel to inspire a “friend of the program” to author such a big check.
As it is, succeeding in outdated Allie P. is but another impressive mark on Holliday’s resume.
The No. 7-ranked Cowboys stand 41-14 overall after winning seven of eight Big 12 series, including six in a row to seize the conference title, the program’s first regular-season championship since 1996 when Holliday was the Big Eight Freshman of the Year as a Cowboys catcher.
“I think what Josh is going to be most proud of one day is the fact that he won this league in the facility that he’s in right now,” said Baylor coach Steve Smith. “And you can. Wayne Graham won at Rice before he had the facility he’s got right now. And we won at Baylor before we got what we’ve got.
“I just know it’s gratifying to know that you were able to do it. But you also know. ‘Gollee, what could we do if we were competitive facility wise?’”
Holliday recognizes the advantages of a new stadium, and wants one, yet insists he’ll never use the current facility as an excuse.
Besides, great memories were forged in that old yard. And those are memories that aren’t lost on these Cowboys.
Holliday has drilled the program’s history and tradition into every player, with stories and videos of legends like Pete Incaviglia and Robin Ventura and Mickey Tettleton and more.
He even made it personal, bringing many former Cowboys greats in for a weekend last fall that allowed the current players to form real connections with OSU’s past.
“When you see all these guys who have played here before, and you talk to them and you see them in person and shake their hands,” said outfielder Zach Fish, “you see their personalities and who they are, they had an edge about them when they played here. You can really tell.
“We want to get back to those roots. And we want to get back to the way that OSU baseball originally was and we want to continue doing what we are now.”