Attitude overhaul started Texas A&M on the road to the preseason No. 1 ranking
When he became head coach in 2005, Rob Childress wanted to change the culture of Texas A&M baseball. He wanted players to understand that donning the maroon and white wasn't like joining a campus fraternity—it was more than that.
"They definitely came in and changed it all up," senior center fielder Kyle Colligan, who was an incoming freshman when Childress took over for long-time coach Mark Johnson, said of the new coaching staff. "When I was a freshman, the guys that were older than me under Coach Johnson said it was a much more laid-back atmosphere before. These guys came in and put in this hard-nosed mentality, this blue-collar work ethic. They were tough."
So was the transition, which eventually culminated in back-to-back super regional appearances in 2007-08 and, now, the top spot in Baseball America's 2009 preseason Top 25 rankings. Those accomplishments and accolades seemed light years away in the spring of 2006, when the Aggies went just 25-30. Even worse, they finished dead last in the Big 12 Conference with a 6-20 record.
It wasn't a fun year for anyone in Aggieland. The coaches were frustrated by the general attitude of the program, and the players chafed under the yoke of the new disciplinarian regime. Senior righthander Kyle Thebeau remembers having to hit the weight room at 6 a.m. day after day and thinking he didn't know what he had gotten himself into.
"(Childress) always told us we were going to be the hardest-working team in the country," Thebeau said. "I think he also wanted to wake us up. It was hard on a lot of us, but it was something we had to go through. It laid the foundation, made us realize how hard it would be for us to do what we needed to do. They were showing us the way. At the time it didn't seem like it, but they were. As it turns out, that was a really important thing."
Childress and his two tireless recruiting coordinators, Matt Deggs and Jeremy Talbot, searched far and wide for gritty players who weren't afraid to work. In the fall of 2006, they brought in a talented 25-man class that infused the program with new energy.
Finally, in a maroon and white intersquad game toward the end of fall ball, Childress recognized a turning point.
"The benches cleared—there weren't any punches thrown—and I looked at Matt (Deggs) and said, 'We're getting to that point where it means something to them,'" Childress recalled. "Then in the spring of '07, Parker Dalton—probably the nicest kid on our team—took offense to a hard tag, and the benches cleared again. I'm not saying the benches have to clear to do things the right way, but it makes you understand that it meant more to them than just playing a game."
The Aggies went 48-19 that year, winning the Big 12 tournament and a home regional before losing to Rice in super regionals. The 23-game improvement from 2006 marked the biggest turnaround in the nation, and it was only the beginning.
Texas A&M went 46-19 in 2008, at one point winning 16 straight conference games en route to the Big 12 regular-season title. Once again the Aggies hosted a regional and won it. And once again they lost to Rice in super regionals.
It Hurts So Good
The Aggies have recaptured some of their swagger of the 1990s, when they went to seven regionals and two College World Series. But the last two years have also left a lingering sense of unfinished business.
"It hurts, that's what you learn," Colligan said of falling just short of Omaha. "It's brutal, especially the second time around. I won't say anything to take away from Rice, because that's a disciplined, well-coached team. But when you think you're better than your opponent, but you don't reach one of your goals in going to Omaha, it hurts. Rice is a great team, but I hope we see them in this year's super regionals. I've been the center fielder on both of those teams, and I want to get to Omaha so bad. It just hurts, and all it does it make you work that much harder.
"Every time you get closer, the goals get set higher."
The goals are sky-high in 2009. With three blue-chip arms in the weekend rotation and a mix of proven veterans and explosive youngsters in the bullpen, Texas A&M boasts the nation's deepest pitching staff. The Aggies must replace five position player starters, but Colligan and fellow senior Luke Anders provide the leadership in an athletic lineup that should have no trouble employing Deggs' hyper-aggressive, blitzkrieg offensive philosophy.
The success of that offense last year allowed weekend starters Brooks Raley and Barret Loux to gain invaluable experience in big games as freshmen. Now, as sophomores, they are mature veterans.
"I've never had this much experience back on the mound—you're looking at over 500 innings back from last year, and 41 wins from last year," Childress said. "Usually when you have that much experience you have some turnover. Last year we were winning games 9-7 or 7-5, so our young pitchers got to walk away with a win because we were so offensive, and they were able to build a little bit of confidence.
"I've never said we've had too much pitching at the end of the year, and I doubt I'll say that this year, but we do have some depth."
The Aggies know very well what they're capable of in 2009, but they're taking nothing for granted.
"I think everyone's really excited, but we know where we stand," Thebeau said. "We know we've got some guys returning, but there are some things this group of guys hasn't done yet. We need to get past the super regional and get to Omaha and win it all."