A few days before the season opener finishing touches to L. Dale Mitchell Ballpark's ticket office are being put in place. After a year of construction around the ballpark a black, wrought iron fence now surrounds the entire facility, while inside the friendly confines a different makeover has taken place over the course of six months.
A new era on the diamond awaits.
On paper the names are more than familiar. Senior Hector Lorenzana returns as one of the premiere second baseman in college baseball. Sophomore Jacob Evans moves into a prominent role after an All-American freshman campain. While speedy sophomore centerfielder Craig Aikin returns to roam around the spacious outfield of the Sooners home ballpark.
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However, until recently even the familiar names were foreign to head coach Pete Hughes who is days away from the 'official' start of his career in Norman.
Roles have expanded and are up for the taking. Making pre-season intersquad scrimmages just as competitive as Sunday afternoon conference rubber-games. Shedding the youthful tag early will be important with just four seniors on Hughes opening day roster.
"I'm looking on paper and trying to figure what we are going to be. If you look on paper it's daunting," said Hughes. "It makes for an unbelievably competitive atmosphere. If you're competing everyday for jobs in practice your skill level and your talent level rises and I've seen kids get better just because of where we are as a program."
A season ago they were the breadwinner's of the conference. Winners of 40-games for the fifth straight season, a conference tournament championship, regional championship as well as as the school's third Super Regional appearance in four years.
Which is no revelation to Hughes who had a front row seat to the Sooners run through the Blacksburg Regional knocking out his Hokies before falling just two games short of college baseball's ultimate goal. A trip to Omaha.
"You sit at home and you realize that you were two wins away from achieving your goal and it leaves a little bit of a sour taste in your mouth," said sophomore Anthony Hermelyn (.275 26 RBI).
After starting 48 games behind the plate for Oklahoma in 2013, Hermelyn now slides into a leadership role. A veteran when compared to the number of the new faces inside the Oklahoma dugout.
"One of our jobs coming into a leadership role on this squad is explaining to the new guys we were only two wins away last year and we know how to get there. Explaining that to them and getting them to understand what it takes to get there. I think that plays a huge role," said Hermelyn.
What's lost in experience is five starters from a 43-21 squad that won 20 of their final 28 regular season games. Gone is arguably the top pitcher in the country from a season ago in Colorado Rockie's No. 3 overall selection Jonathan Gray. So too is Dillon Overton. Graduated are seniors Jack Mayfield, Max White, and Garrett Carey while would-be senior Matt Oberste prepares to head to spring training with the New York Mets.
Two starting pitchers and four everyday starters in the Oklahoma line-up that Hughes would have loved to coach. But there's no time to dwell. Not with the expectations that come along with taking over a program that has set the bar over the last couple of seasons, playing in a NCAA Super Regional three times in the last four years.
"You can go on and on and on about what we lost but I'm looking and telling you people what we have in our program," says Hughes. "We have ton of young guys who are locked in mentally, focused, and extremely competitive with all of the expanded roles in our program."
Fort Worth (Texas) Keller Fossil Ridge Sheldon Neuse is one of those freshmen.
After a decorated high school career in which he stroked 30 bombs and earned district MVP honors his junior and senior year, Neuse arrived to campus and shed the title of 'true freshman' rather quickly.
"He's got some unbelievable pop off his bat, great arm strength. His baseball mind- IQ- is off the charts. I've seen him do some things as a freshman that I haven't seen seniors be smart enough to do out there on the baseball field," said Hermelyn who was noted as a heady ballplayer himself, even earning pitch-calling duties towards the end of last season post-season run.
Joining Neuse, in the battle for early playing time are firstbase candidates Lewisville (Texas) Niko Buentello and Owasso (Okla.) Austin O'Brien. Buentello begins his college career after taking home all-district honors all four years of high school, while O'Brien garners the tab as the state's top high school player from a season ago leading the Rams to an undefeated record and 6A state championship title.
"These guys are pretty accomplished for freshman. They have very advanced approaches at the plate," said Hughes. "Now what are they going to do when the lights are on? I have no idea but we'll certainly find out."
Much like Sooners fans will find out about Hughes and the new era of baseball that awaits.
SCOOP BASEBALL PREVIEW
Thursday - Part II: Pitchers/Infield
Friday - Part III: Offense