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February 15, 2013

OU's arms lead the way into 2013

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Speak with Oklahoma head baseball coach Sunny Golloway and there won't be any doubt left in your mind the 8-year skipper is confident in his club.

And why shouldn't he be? On the heels of the program's third Super Regional appearance, Oklahoma will start the 2013 campaign with their sights set on a sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance.

Picked to win the Big 12 by the league coaches Tuesday, Oklahoma enters the 2013 season strapped with two of the best starting pitchers in not just the conference but the entire country.

"It's as good as any. I've never had two potential first rounders. When I came back as associate head coach we had David Purcey and that was a luxury Friday but then you had to really turn around and battle," said Golloway.

SCOOPHD: OU BASEBALL GETS SET FOR 2013

That luxury now comes on more than just Friday nights for the Sooners who open their season Feb. 15, when they welcome Hofstra for a four-game set at L. Dale Mitchell Ballpark.

Headlined by the return of pre-season All-American selections in junior LHP Dillon Overton and senior RHP Jonathan Gray Oklahoma welcomes junior college transfer LHP Billy Waltrip to the weekend rotation.

"(Billy) would probably be a lot of people's number one and he's our number three. Because we've got two number ones," said Golloway.

"They're all projected to be first to fifth round draft picks and we've never had the likes of those types of arms in our starting rotation."

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Seminole State product was one of only four players drafted in the first 12 rounds of last summer's Major League Baseball draft that opted to not sign a professional contract.

"I really wanted to go to the draft but after talking with coach Golloway and some of the guys on the team they talked to me saying that if I wanted to come here and get better and make sure I progress through this is the place to come," said Waltrip who earned All-Conference honors following a 7-2 sophomore season at Seminole State.

"I came here on my visit and the atmosphere just caught me coming to the games and watching the other guys pitch it's something that I didn't want to miss. I've already learned twice as much as I had previously just working with coach (Jack) Giese in six months."

For Overton, a Weatherford native, the start of his junior campaign marks his third year in a program that he has seemingly had a major role since day one. Though that role as a starter won't change the fact that he will now be the premiere Friday night starter in the Big 12 conference.

"I try not to talk about it too much because in reality I'm going to play my role in wherever they put me. Whether it's starting pitcher, reliever or middle reliever, it doesn't matter to me. I'm just going to try and go out there and get a win for my team," said Overton through his western Oklahoma drawl.

"This is my third season in this program and the way I've matured and grown up a little bit, it's made me to be able to be more calm out there and confident in what I'm doing."

A far cry from a story Golloway tells of Overton's freshmen season in Norman which left the southpaw hurler with the nickname 'chicken noodle soup' after falling ill and heading for home down I-40.

Looking to build on a sophomore season in which he earned Big 12 honorable mention after posting a 6-3 record in 16 starts, Overton's maturity jumps off the page to his head coach.

"Just maturity that you see with young people as they get older. I've always used Bryant Hernandez, his freshmen year coming from California being homesick. Sophomore year in and out of the line-up and then junior year man amongst boys. A true professional and that's what I've seen from Dillon (Overton)," said Golloway.

Which should come as a warning to batter's throughout the conference after Overton finished his 2012 campaign No. 2 in strikeouts (126) and fourth in innings (122.2).

"(Pre-season awards) are great but I'm not really focused on it. We're ready to start the season and we'll see how that happens along the way. It's a great thing to have and I'm blessed but we'll see how the season comes along."

"There's so many people at the game and pressure games come into play but you've got to go out there and have fun. You're playing the game you love," said Overton.

"As a team we're going to try and win a national championship."

An ultimate goal that isn't exactly a secret around the Oklahoma clubhouse after falling oh so short a season ago.

"It helps we have a lot of momentum carrying over from (last year) because when you're only a few games away from (Omaha) that will motivate you even more to get there the next year," said Johnathan Gray, who shares pre-season All-American honors with Overton.

"I think we'll be fine. We just need to do what we do and it'll be great."

SOONER YOUTH MOVEMENT

If you haven't flipped through an Oklahoma baseball media guide it would come recommended before walking through the gates of L. Dale Mitchell.

A total of 12 freshmen are listed on the Sooners' opening day roster.

"I think we epitomize a true team more so than any of the years I've been here in the past because there's a good chance if we were to start today we'd have three, maybe four, freshmen in our starting line up," said Golloway on the Sooners Media Day.

"Even though there's a lot of youth and restless nights on the part of our coaching staff, let's remember when you replace experience with young players it's not a bad thing. There must be some talent there or we're not doing a good job as far as evaluating our talent."

Leading that group of young freshmen is centerfielder Craig Aikin who impressed the Sooner coaching staff enough to move returning three-year letterwinner Max White to left field.

"To move a three-year starter you've got to be a pretty special player and that enters Craig Aikin. You'll get to see him on display in less than a week now," teased Golloway.

"You're talking about a little left handed hitter who can fly, go get the baseball and be in the top of our order and do a lot of special things."

Aikin, a Coppell (Texas) product, was a first team all-district and all-state selection as a senior in which he hit .450 and stole 25 bases while also starring for the D-BAT Mustangs at the Connie Mack World Series over the summer where he earned MVP honors.

But before Aikin's speed can be utilized on the base paths Golloway has spent most of his time during the Sooners early pre-season teaching his young squad a golden rule that was often forgotten by his veteran squad a season ago.

"We are trying to get our athletes buying into the manufacturing of runs. You have to be able to bunt. You have to be able to hit and run. You have to be able to be smart on the basepaths," said Golloway.

In 2012 runs were at times hard to come by for the Sooners scoring less than three runs in 15 of their 25 losses. In seven of those losses Oklahoma's bats were held to 1 or fewer runs including the final two games of the season in which they lost 5-0 and 5-1 to South Carolina.

"It's a major concern. I think we hit less than .250 or .240 as a team and our on base percentage was around .240 in postseason play and you look back at it and say how did you make it to the Big 12 Championship? How do you win a regional at Virginia coming through the loser's bracket?"

Dominant starting pitching can only go so far in college baseball.

And it's a reason why Golloway found himself angered during an intrasquad scrimmage only a week ago.

"(Our starting pitching) is pretty special but we can't let it be a negative. I see position players in the fourth or fifth inning not real concerned in an intrasquad because the bunch that has Overton throwing for them is up 3-0. You would have though they were up 10-0," said Golloway.

"We've got to learn how to get after people and step on people and keep going because whatever we are ranked is a little disappointing. Rankings don't mean anything right now but we have a really special club."

Oklahoma currently ranks as high as No. 14 in the Collegiate Baseball poll followed by No. 16 in the USA Today/Coaches poll, No. 17 in National Collegiate Baseball Writers, and No. 19 according to Baseball America.



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