HOUSTON - Ryan Rohlinger nods his head in that dreamy-eyed, what-if sort of way, recalling his decision to remain a Sooner and put pro ball on hold. "Last year, when it ended, the draft came and a lot of guys who could have gone didn't, says Rohlinger, OU's third baseman. "It crossed my mind not to come back. Crossed a lot of minds. Amid the disappointment of an abruptly ended season and the uncertainty of a coaching search, 12 Oklahoma seniors-to-be separately sold themselves on another year in crimson and cream. The Dedicated Dozen. Now, with the Sooners on deck for the first Super Regional appearance in school history, against No. 1-ranked Rice with a coveted College World Series slot at stake, none admits a single regret. "Great decision, says OU senior outfielder Chuckie Caufield. "You look back to how hard we worked all year, all we've been through as a group. "Then losing the first game at the regional, a heartbreaker, to see how hard we battled back, it's a wonderful feeling. It's rare for any decent team to return 12 seniors, considering Major League Baseball snatches up most of the best junior talent in its annual June draft. And with Oklahoma, the overload of seniors is stunning, considering all the baggage lugged from last season forward. The Larry Cochell incident. The curious coaching search that delivered Gene Stephenson for all of a few hours, then re-started before Sunny Golloway was finally put in place. It might have made more sense for players to bail, either to pro ball or another program or just to escape. And yet, OU has more seniors than any of the other 15 teams still playing. And nine Sooner seniors are either everyday starters or key members of the pitching staff, either as a starter or reliever. The Determined Dozen. By contrast, among fellow Super Regional squads, North Carolina's roster includes but one senior. Stanford, Ole Miss, Miami and Georgia Tech all have just four. "They've meant the world to us, says Golloway. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. "We're a very close ballclub, Caufield says. "We do a lot of things together. We get along well. And that's a key thing, when you've got guys who love each other and like being around each other, you'll get more guys coming back. "You don't want to leave those guys behind. One day you're going to have to, but it's tough. Rohlinger, second baseman Russell Raley and Caufield rank 1-2-3 on the club in batting average. First baseman Kevin Smith leads the team with 65 runs batted in. Pitchers Daniel McCutchen, Steven Guerra and P.J. Sandoval form the Sooners starting rotation, while Will Savage and John Brownell have combined for 12 wins and 12 saves out of the bullpen. So these seniors carry obvious influence on this season's accomplishments. Still, their impact stretches deeper than their own stat lines. "Those guys have given us a tremendous amount of stability, Golloway says. "I'm going to miss their smiles. I'll miss the way they go about doing their work and the relationship we have. "I know we'll replace the numbers, but we'll miss the relationship and the bond that's been developed over the course of time. The Driven Dozen. OU's senior showing indicates the rich fondness for Golloway, who could have faced a mighty rebuilding task. Golloway says he believes it's all come about for a reason. "It has to do with what we went through, Golloway says. "And I don't want to bring it up, I don't want to go backwards, but it was one of those things that doesn't happen hardly ever, so you look back and say, We were meant to be there at that time and that place.' "I feel that way as a coach. They feel that was as players. My staff feels that way, the emotions we felt in the dugout, watching our players dog pile after we beat Wichita State. It's funny, the great master's got a plan. And we're just living it out. Part of that plan was having 12 seniors. What remains in the plans for these Sooners? The next revealing step plays out in Houston. But for OU's seniors, their return has already proven rewarding. "Right when I stepped off the mound against Wichita State, after all the excitement, I got myself under control and I went up and gave Coach G a hug, McCutchen says. "He said, This is what you came back for.' And that's exactly right. "I came back to be at the bottom of the dog pile. And I was. Hopefully, I'm going to be at the bottom of two more.Comments
Super Regional Where: Reckling Park (4,500), Houston. When: Saturday 6 p.m.; Sunday noon; Monday, if necessary, noon. Tickets: All-session packages are available for $33, while single-game tickets go on sale today for $15, online at www.riceowls.cstv.com or by phone at 713-522-6957. TV: Saturday ESPN2 (Cox 28), Sunday and Monday ESPN (Cox 29). OU vs. Rice Bottom Line: The Owls are built on pitching and defense, a trademark of Wayne Graham's teams. Rice ranks third nationally with a 3.02 ERA and leads the country in strikeouts per nine innings (9.6). The Owls have fanned 594 batters in 5572/3 innings. OU's front-line pitching has been solid, with Daniel McCutchen and Steven Guerra combining for 20 wins. And the Sooners are the nation's top statistical defensive club. While the Owls are Super Regional regulars, this is a first for any of the Sooners. Rice gets an edge at home and with a deeper pitching staff. But OU has been hot at the plate, with its 47 postseason runs more than any other club. To get out of Houston and on to Omaha, the Sooners better stay hot, get extended outings from McCutchen and Guerra and keep mistakes to a minimum. By John Helsley Back for more
OU claims the most seniors -- 12 -- of the 16 teams still playing in the NCAA Tournament. And they've made a major impact on the Sooners' extended season. John Brownell: 5-0 with two saves out of the pen. Chuckie Caufield: Leadoff man batting .358 with 18 stolen bases. Steven Guerra: Wins leader with 11. Daniel McCutchen: Big-game pitcher offers wins (9) and moxie. Russell Raley: .358 batting average ranks second on the club. Freddy Rodriguez: Made 47 middle infield starts, batting .322. Ryan Rohlinger: Leads the Sooners with a .377 average and 12 homers. Scott Rooker: Reserve outfielder saw limited action. P.J. Sandoval: No. 3 starter contributed six wins. Will Savage: Closer has a staff-high 10 saves and seven wins. Jon Shackelford: backup catcher and infielder. Kevin Smith: nine homers and a team-best 65 RBIs.