Just a few years ago, Pat Casey thought about leaving Oregon State.
Maybe he could find more success in pro ball, working as an instructor. He was sick of identifying talented players, selling them on a school in which he believed and then losing out on the players because another program offered a better history or better weather.
Casey sure is glad he kept believing. His 12th Oregon State team beat North Carolina twice after losing the first game of the College World Series championship series to won the school a second national title to go along with a 1961 cross country championship. Oregon State (50-16), which won consecutive Pacific-10 Conference titles for the first time in school history this season, was the only team to reach the College World Series in 2005 and 2006. Not bad for a program whose only previous CWS trip had come in 1952. For those successes, Casey earns Baseball America’s 2006 College Coach of the Year award.
“In my mind it’s one of the most miraculous college baseball stories ever,” said Arizona State coach Pat Murphy, who has become close with Casey as they’ve coached against each other in the Pac-10.
“I sat with him in a restaurant in 2000 in Corvallis, he was down and out and thinking ‘Can I do it here?’ I quite frankly didn’t think he could do it there with Oregon kids. But he did. And he didn’t do it with any funny business. He did it straight up, the right way.”
Casey might have done it the right way, but his 2006 team also did it the hard way in Omaha. It won a CWS-record six elimination games after dropping its first game in bracket play and again losing its opener in the championship series.
“If you’re going to coach, you better be able to lead,” Casey said. “After we lost that first game to North Carolina, I told them to walk off the bus proud. Then they bowed their necks and played like champions.”
The Beavers believed, and they persevered. Just as their coach had a few years before in coming off a 19-35 season in 1999, the first year the Northern and Southern teams in the Pac-10 compete as a full league.
“In ’99, I’m on a plane flying back from getting our tails whipped and I questioned it for a moment,” Casey said. “But it’s about leading young men. If you don’t believe you can do it, players can see it in your eyes. If you don’t believe, they won’t either.”
Casey stuck it out. He measured the program’s success incrementally. Winning a game against Stanford or Arizona State. A series win against Arizona. Getting to 10 wins in conference play. Then it happened in 2005. A collection of 2003 recruits formed the axis of a strong pitching rotation: Dallas Buck, Jonah Nickerson and closer Kevin Gunderson. He remembers Gunderson saying he’d always wanted to play at Stanford.
“I said, ‘OK, we play there, you’ll just be wearing our uniform,’ ” Casey said, and it’s worth noting Oregon State went 8-3 against Stanford over the last three years.
The first series win against the Cardinal came last season, when the Beavers went 46-12, 19-5 in the Pac-10 and showed up in Omaha as the story of the year. Then came a 5-0 mark against Stanford during this season’s repeat.
“I knew we had talent when I came to Oregon State, but I didn’t think in my second year we’d go 46-12 and get to Omaha,” Gunderson said. “That was kind of a dream season. We were a surprise, but we showed we could compete with any team in the country from Arizona, California or whatever.
“This year, we came in with a lot of hype and were experienced, and it’s been harder. Last year everyone was happy for us and it was a fun story, and this year there are more critics saying we can’t do it or players aren’t as good as they were. It comes with success. When you have that bullseye on your back, it makes a difference every game. Teams are gunning for us, every game they’re giving us their best.”
Oregon State responded with its best. Casey stressed the values of toughness and hard work, and the championship roster exemplified that. Cole Gillespie hit one home run in his first two years as a role player before batting .379-13-57 as a junior, earning All-America and Pac-10 player of the year honors. Senior Chris Kunda started just 14 games last season and hit .242. A year later, he earned Pac-10 defensive player of the year honors and made several highlight-reel plays at second base during the CWS.
Or take sophomore righthander Daniel Turpen, who made one start all season before Casey called on him to take the mound in an elimination game against Rice. He allowed five hits over 6 2/3 scoreless innings in a 5-0 win.
“I’ve told Turp before, it’s not where you start the season, it’s where you are when it ends,” Casey said. “It happens when you least expect it.”
Sort of like the Beavers turning into national champions.