COLUMBIA, S.C.—Josh Holliday was wearing orange and black then, and he’s wearing orange and black now. He knows the 17 years in between have been too long.
His players know it, too. They’re all aware of the year 1999 and its significance, even though back then, most of Oklahoma State’s current roster was elementary school age—or younger (the current team’s freshmen were born in 1997). But putting on the Oklahoma State uniform in 2016 means strapping on a 17-year burden—17 years of waiting, 17 years of Cowboys fans rooting and wishing for a return to dominance.
That’s why when junior righthander Trey Cobb threw the final pitch of Sunday’s 3-1 super regional win over South Carolina, when he saw his second baseman J.R. Davis put his glove around a liner to end the game and send the Cowboys to Omaha, the very first thought in Cobb’s mind was, “We’re back.”
“It took a little too long for our fan base,” Cobb said. “I know they got used to going every year, but it’s hard to get there. But we made it, and that’s all I can think about—is just that we’re back.”
They’re back. For the first time since 1999, the Cowboys—who from 1981-1999 appeared in 11 College World Series—will be going to Omaha. The significance of the trip isn’t lost on those players, not by any stretch. But those two words, “we’re back,” resonate even more with their head coach.
Holliday was a player on that 1999 College World Series team; his father, Tom Holliday, was the head coach. That was Josh Holliday’s senior year. He had spurned the draft and come back out of loyalty to the program, with the hopes of doing something special.
He did the same in 2012, when he took over as the program’s head coach after serving as an assistant at North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Arizona State and most recently, Vanderbilt. Holliday knew what his mission was when he took the reins. He knew the program, which has appeared in Omaha 20 times and won a championship in 1959, was longing to once again bask in the glow of the College World Series.
With Sunday’s win–in the fourth season of Holliday’s tenure—that mission was accomplished.
“We’re humbled, very humbled, to have come here and play well enough to advance to the College World Series,” Holliday said at the post-game dais, a clear moisture in his eyes. “It’s an amazing journey. It pulls a lot of things out of you along the way … It’s very special to our school, having been a program with amazing baseball history, to have not gone since 1999.
“To go back gives us a feeling of being whole again.”
The Cowboys have done it by going on a tear through the Palmetto State, winning all three of their games as the No. 2 seed in the Clemson Regional and beating host South Carolina in both games of the Columbia Super Regional. A day after ace Thomas Hatch threw seven scoreless innings, righthander Tyler Buffett followed up with a seven-inning one-run performance to outduel South Carolina’s No. 1 starter Clarke Schmidt. The Cowboys didn’t have many opportunities to score against the Gamecocks righthander, but they took advantage of the few they did get in the fifth, when two South Carolina errors helped fuel a three-run inning.
The Cowboys have excelled in the postseason by playing clean baseball. Their pitching staff has allowed a total of six runs in five games, their defense is making plays behind them, and their veteran-heavy, opportunistic lineup has scored just enough to win. That formula has helped turn around a season that began with the Cowboys going 2-5—at one point losing four-straight walk-offs—and has gotten Oklahoma State back on track after a 1-2 showing in the Big 12 tournament.
It’s also a formula that could play well in the cavernous dimensions of T.D. Ameritrade Park Omaha.
“I think the way we’re playing, we’re dangerous,” Holliday said. “I wouldn’t want to play us. I don’t say that arrogantly. I say that because . . . that’s such a unique park that style of play can really factor in, and if we pitch great and defend and run bases and get guys home and bunt and do some of the little things we had to do today to score off of an excellent pitcher, I think these kids will play really well there.”
None of that is a recent development for the Cowboys, however. It’s something that Holliday and his staff have been building for four years. It started when Holliday lured Oral Roberts head coach Rob Walton—a former Cowboys pitcher—to be his pitching coach. Holliday calls Walton his most important recruit.
Eight days later, Walton’s son Donnie Walton became Holliday’s first commitment. Walton has been a four-year starter at shortstop, batting third on Sunday. Cobb, Sunday’s closer out of the bullpen, was the first player to commit to the Cowboys once the coaching staff was fully assembled. Buffett, Sunday’s starting pitcher, allowed Holliday to re-recruit him after he had committed to the previous staff.
“These kids trusted us at the very beginning of this process,” Holliday said. “And when you try to take on a group of people and provide a vision and leadership, it takes trust, and it’s hard to get started at first, but these are some of the first steps to that happening. And for these kids to be celebrated today, all is good with the world for me. And that’s good for our kids.”
It was special in particular for Walton, who drove in one of the team’s three runs with a single and sat next to Holliday in the post-game press conference. Walton grew up hearing stories and watching videos of Oklahoma State’s glory days. His father had pitched on four College World Series Cowboys teams.
Walton could’ve left the Cowboys after his junior year, as he was drafted in the 23rd round by the Brewers. But he called Holliday in the offseason and told him he wanted to wear the orange and black one more time—just like Holliday had done in his playing career.
This was the kind of result Walton had visualized. Over the past few seasons, Walton and his teammates have gotten to the postseason precipice but have been unable to play their way into Omaha. The expectations of fans, the memories of 1999, have weighed on them.
“I think the last couple of years we felt pressure, being at home, and I just think we added pressure because we were looking ahead,” Walton said. “And the difference about this team, we weren’t looking ahead, we were looking at one game at a time and literally having as much fun as possible. And so I knew this team was ready because throughout the whole season we’d been through so much adversity.”
But even though the 17-year wait finally ended Sunday, even though the Cowboys were finally back, their post-game celebration was relatively tame. Players gathered around Cobb at the pitcher’s mound, water bottles were emptied, a cooler was turned over. But there was something notably missing—no dogpile.
That was a conscious decision—more of a postponement than a cancellation.
“We kind of talked about it beforehand, if it happened today,” Walton said. “We thought just one dogpile this season was going to end it.”
They’ve waited 17 years for a dogpile. What’s another two weeks?