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Oklahoma Baseball: For the 1994 Sooners, This Year's OU  Team 'Is Like a Replica of Us'

Beyond the teams' comparable rosters, they both have a winning chemistry and a powerful bond that comes from being underestimated.

OMAHA – If you think you’ve seen some similarities between this year’s Oklahoma baseball team and the Sooners’ last national champion squad in 1994, you’re not alone.

“It’s like a replica of us,” said ‘94 closer Bucky Buckles.

“It just brings back a lot of memories,” said first baseman/DH Damon Minor.

“They were like us,” said All-American second baseman Rick Gutierrez. “They were not ranked high, they were not expected to do big things. But they got hot at the right time. They got the right chemistry, the right coaching, and they’re just hitting on all pistons, man. It’s awesome. It’s exciting the way they’re playing right now.”

“If you pay attention to it,” said relief pitcher Russell Ortiz, “then you start to see those similarities.”

This year’s Sooners (45-22) are on the precipice of winning their first national championship in 28 years thanks to a roster full of gritty underdogs and resourceful coaches. If they beat Ole Miss twice this weekend, they’ll be immortalized as champions.

Gutierrez, Buckles, Minor, Ortiz and head coach Larry Cochell spoke with AllSooners this week to recount the Sooners’ unlikely march to glory now nearly three decades ago, and the overriding theme was that this year’s OU team was of similar construction and makeup to theirs.

Cochell said he’s as impressed now as he was then.

The Sooners hoist Larry Cochell and the trophy.

The Sooners hoist Larry Cochell and the trophy.

“Oh man,” said Cochell, “I’ve watched every game. They’ve made all the routine plays and made some great plays.”

Some of the similarities are obvious: a big left-handed ace (Mark Redman in ‘94, Jake Bennett this year), a long-relief closer (Buckles in ‘94, Trevin Michael this year), an experienced, talented center fielder (Chip Glass in ‘94, Tanner Tredaway this year), a dynamic shortstop (Rich Hills in ‘94, Peyton Graham this year). There are lots of others.

But the chemistry and mentality of the 1994 squad is also a tie that binds these two historic squads. They both walked with a chip on their shoulder, brought on largely by external doubters who hung the previous year’s failures upon that team’s expectations.

In 1994, the Sooners had been to Omaha recently (1992) but missed the NCAA Tournament altogether in 1993. This year’s team had a losing record last year and also missed the postseason.

Gutierrez said the ‘94 bunch was internally motivated as well.

“The majority of the guys were from California, and we were not recruited very highly in California,” Gutierrez said. “So I think we had a chip on our shoulders.”

He said because of the team’s failures in ‘93, they almost felt an obligation to repay the university for their scholarship. The best way to do that was win a national title.

Ortiz said all those jucos brought an edge to the program in 1994.

“We added some players and right away, you could see the talent level was really good,” Ortiz said.

“Because they were coming out of junior college, there was this fierceness about them. I would say the road that guys came from in junior college was essentially a harder road than a four-year university. Meaning, how much they had to prove themselves. The work that junior college made these guys do – even though we did a lot, they did more than we did.

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“So right away, you could see that these guys may have had a chip on their shoulder, something to prove, and they didn’t seem scared of anything.”

Because the ‘93 season ended prematurely and left everyone with a sour taste, the team broke early for summer ball. Gutierrez was playing semipro ball in California when he turned on the College World Series and saw a former juco teammate playing for Texas A&M. That aggravated him.

So he told Glass then and there that he would not sign a pro contract that summer.

“I told Chip … ‘I’m gonna go back, because we’re gonna win it all,’ ” Gutierrez said. “Did I know we were gonna win it all? No. But I told the same thing to Larry Cochell because he called me and wanted to know if I was gonna come back, or if he was gonna give my scholarship to someone else. I told him the same thing.”

“That’s exactly what happened,” said Cochell, who was gearing up for his fourth season in Norman after a Hall of Fame career he began at Creighton, Oral Roberts and Cal State Fullerton. “We wanted him to come back because he was one of our leaders.”

The 1994 Sooners started 6-0, with their sixth win coming against No. 1-ranked Georgia Tech at Cal State Fullerton. Yeah, that Georgia Tech.

“They were a big deal,” Ortiz said, “because they had Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek, Jay Payton and other guys that were well known in college baseball. And we beat them.”

“That was a really cool feeling,” Ortiz said. “Once the team all came together and we all knew who was kind of the nucleus of the team and all that stuff, we had guys that weren’t scared.”

OU stayed hot by winning 14 of their first 17, then they split a home series – with Ole Miss, ironically. An eight-game winning streak then showed what was possible.

“We realized by midseason and going into the end, we realized we had a chance,” Cochell said. “You have to be good, but you also have to be lucky.”

But then OU dropped three of five to Oklahoma State. The Cowboys went on to win the Big Eight, then beat the Sooners again in the conference tournament.

That disappointment was brief. Younger players tried to mope about it, but the older ones – especially the jucos – told them to knock it off.

“Getting that bigger ring,” Minor said, “was a great accomplishment.”

The NCAA selection committee awarded Oklahoma a No. 1 seed for the tournament – but then shipped the Sooners to Austin.

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At that point, the team’s laser focus could have cut steel.

“We had older guys,” Cochell said. “(Darvin) Traylor and (M.J.) Mariani and Aric Thomas and guys like that, the two Minors (Damon and Ryan). They knew how to compete and didn’t have stage fright.”

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OU routed Arkansas State 10-3, then Stanford 10-4. The beatings continued when the Sooners thrashed Texas 15-4, and after the Longhorns made it back to the finals, they were eliminated 6-3 as OU was on their way to Omaha from Disch-Falk Field.

“Did it on their field,” Minor said, “so it was kind of enjoyable.”

The Sooners’ roll continued at Rosenblatt Stadium as they outlasted Auburn (5-4) and Arizona State (4-3) in a couple of tight ones. But by then, there was a team-wide feeling that this thing was happening.

OU eliminated the Sun Devils 6-1 in the rematch, then battered Georgia Tech for the second time that season, 13-5, in the CWS championship game. Both teams finished the season with a 50-17 record.

“We just played our best baseball at the end,” Cochell said.

A five-run fourth inning was the difference as the Yellow Jackets committed three errors and the Sooners batted around.

Redman had pitched a complete game in the blowout of Arizona State, so he was unavailable. Tim Walton – now Florida’s softball coach – was the winning pitcher in relief of Kevin Lovingier and improved to 7-3 on the season. He turned it over to Buckles with one out in the fifth, and Buckles finished it off with 3 ⅔ innings of stellar relief for his Big Eight record 14th save.

“I wanted to start the game just because I wanted to pitch so bad,” Buckles said. “I tried to talk Cochell into it, but he said, ‘We’ll get to you eventually.’ They got to me a little bit earlier than we normally did.”

This year's Sooner baseball team hopes to recreate the 1994 squad's Omaha dogpile.

This year's Sooner baseball team hopes to recreate the 1994 squad's Omaha dogpile.

The final out – catcher Javier Flores threw to first after a slow nubber up the third base line by Varitek following yet another slider from Buckles – touched off a memorable celebration. Relief pitcher Kenny Gajewski, now the softball coach at Oklahoma State, was at the bottom of the dogpile with Walton, Buckles and two dozen others.

“You know, it’s an awesome feeling,” Buckles said. “Everyone always remembers that last out, so I guess I get a lot of praise for it.”

“I just – it was like a dream,” Gutierrez said. “Honestly, I can’t explain it. But it was something that everybody at the same time just felt that electric – I’d never felt that before.”

Gutierrez had a plan for the final out, and held onto it for 25 years.


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“The only thing I remember was telling my first baseman, Mark Soto at the time, the last inning, ‘I just want the ball from the last out,’ ” Gutierrez said. “I just felt like I wanted that ball. So if you see that dogpile at the end, you see me come in gently because I asked Mark, ‘Throw me the ball.’ He gave me the ball right away.”

Gutierrez held onto that ball until the team reunited in 2019 for the 25th anniversary of the championship. At that point, he handed it over to operations director Ryan Gaines, and now it’s enshrined at the OU baseball facility.

Gaines was a student trainer on the 1992 and ‘93 team, but because of a university rule that limited them to no more than two consecutive years in the role, he wasn’t there for ‘94. He did return for the 1995 season that also ended in Omaha, but he never got to savor the title.

Gaines said he was on his way to the Alaska League’s Kenai Peninsula Oilers to work for then-OU assistant Sunny Golloway when the Sooners lifted Cochell and the NCAA trophy onto their shoulders, enjoying pancakes in British Columbia when Flores threw the final out.

“That has fueled me since that moment,” Gaines told AllSooners, “just to appreciate this as well. What’s funny is, the guys on that ‘94 team now all think I was there.”

Gaines is part of a group text string that includes 20 or so members of the 1994 Sooners. They communicate frequently, sharing birthday wishes or family news or job updates. The chemistry that bonded this team together almost 30 years ago is as strong now as it was when they walked off Rosenblatt for the final time.

“It’s created this, so far, lifelong bond almost 30 years later,” Ortiz said. “Because we bonded back then and put goals out there and achieved those goals together. I think that helped seal that bond to this day.

“Man, it’s just a brotherhood that you create. It stays with you, and it’s just really cool.”

“We had our motto, ‘25 guys pulling on the same rope,’ helping each other, pulling for each other,” Buckles said. “We had no cliques on the team. We had no ‘I’ guys, I should say. We were there for a mission and everything fell into place, everybody knew their roles, and when their roles came up, they helped produce or made the other guy look better.”

Now everyone on the ‘94 team is still pulling on that same rope. This time, however, the rope belongs to the 2022 Sooners.

“I think that’s one thing that’s special about this team and why it resembles the team we had,” Minor said, “is they just seem like they all get together and they're all fighting for each other and they’re just all enjoying that team aspect. It’s fun to watch.

“You can just tell, whoever comes up, whoever’s pinch-hitting, whoever’s in the game (or) not in the game, you can just see everybody’s there for the common goal of the team. It’s just really fun to watch.”

“We talk about it every day,” Buckles said, “and that feeling seems to be what that team has now. What that group has, the group atmosphere, coach (Skip) Johnson brought that back to them, and it’s sticking to them.

“It’s something that will help you win games that you’re not supposed to win, just because you’re there for each other.”

The group text has been busy over the years. Walton (and Thomas, his assistant) have won national championships in softball. Gajewski has elevated OSU softball to new heights. Damon Minor is still the Giants’ Triple-A hitting instructor in Sacramento. Ortiz pitched 12 years in the majors. Pitcher Steve Connelly has been busy in the Oakland farm system. Others from ‘94 are still in the game. The seniors on that team have now reached their 50s.

But phones will be buzzing this weekend like never before.

“It’s an awesome feeling, and my heart is speeding up,” Gutierrez said. “I just have a feeling they’re bringing it home. They’re hot, they’re playing the right baseball. It’ll be awesome. The softball girls won the national championship and now the baseball team. It’ll be awesome.

“I get excited now by me just talking about the Sooners this year.”