COVID, shutdowns, halts and delays: Oklahoma finally opens 2021, and has reason for optimism

Sooners have the talent and the experience, but coach Skip Johnson wants them to continue developing the right mental approach
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Whether it’s the season-opener getting postponed, delayed, pushed back, canceled and completely rearranged, or seeing a line outside his favorite fast-food stop, Oklahoma baseball coach Skip Johnson is trying his best to chill out.

“I don't know if you guys have been to a Chick-fil-A or a Whataburger, but I love both of those places,” Johnson said recently. “That line is wrapped around — I’m sitting there like, ‘Man! What's going on?’

“Breathe. Relax. And it's the same thing (in baseball): ‘I really want to go out here today, I really want to practice today (but practice is canceled by snow, or the season is canceled by COVID-19).

“Understand, it’s a process.”

Peyton Graham (20), Trent Brown (2)

Peyton Graham (left), Trent Brown

No. 23-ranked OU finally opens the 2021 season on Sunday, but not without having waited in a really long line.

The Sooners begin at home with two games against Nebraska-Omaha — a series that was originally supposed to be home against Southern last week, but then got changed to Wichita State in Round Rock, TX, then got changed to a series at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, then got moved back home against UNO.

It’s all part of college baseball in the COVID era — and for that matter, the snowmageddon era: stay focused, stay ready.

Johnson likes to think he got that message across during the pandemic, when the 2020 season was canceled just 18 games in. Then the offseason was canceled. Then fall was canceled, or at least severely rearranged.

“With everything going on, it was definitely a challenge to stay sharp at all times,” said senior shortstop Brandon Zaragoza, “ … even to this day, we live day-to-day and we never really know what to expect.”

One thing to expect, of course, is the unexpected.

The way Johnson sees it, the whole thing has been something of an extension of the very nature of baseball.

“There’s going to be ups and downs during the season,” Johnson said. “That’s what baseball does to you. It reveals your character. There’s going to be so many highs and lows. Really, the game wants you to feel bad. What you have to do is stay in an even keel.

“If we think it’s going to go as planned, it’s not.”

Johnson said embracing that idea might be one of the x-factors to having a good season, and he laid out what it looks like.

“I think the COVID period has taught us the process more than anything,” Johnson said. “I have to wake up in the morning, I have to fill a COVID sheet out, I have to go over here and take a test, I’ve got to make sure I wear a mask, I have to make sure I use hand sanitizer, I have to make sure I wash my hands every day. Those things are teaching us process and teaching these young men and process. We can look and gripe about this COVID, but what are we learning from it? That’s the biggest issue.”

Baseball relies on a set routine and a consistent mental approach more than most other sports, so any minor disruption can produce catastrophic results. No batting practice because the field is wet? Oh no. A doubleheader on Saturday because Friday’s game was rained out. That’s trouble. Your bullpen session got canceled because you have a midterm? Good luck.

Now throw a pandemic in the middle of everything.

“It was a big disruption,” said sophomore right-hander Wyatt Olds, “especially from the mental side of the game. Just not being able to go out there and compete as much as usual, we got our season taken from us, so we didn’t get to have that competitive edge on the field.

“So I think it was a really big thing being able to work this fall with the team and playing against each other, trying to get back into that groove and the mental side of things. It was a big challenge trying to keep up with your own part of it during quarantine, for sure, just trying to make sure you stick with your routines and getting up every morning and doing your thing.”

There will be more disruptions to the schedule this year. The teams that successfully navigate those will be successful.

Brandon Zaragoza

Brandon Zaragoza

To that end, Johnson, now starting his fourth season in Norman, likes his team’s mental approach — and his team’s talent.

OU went 14-4 last season, and 23 players are back from that squad to go with 19 newcomers. That larger roster is part of the NCAA’s blanket-eligibility waiver for 2021, and could make things interesting on the field. Of the 42 players, 24 are in at least their third year of college baseball.

OU was picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 Conference this season, but with all that talent and the right mental approach, maybe that’s too low.

“We had a really good team last year going into the season,” Johnson said. “We’re just really thankful for the opportunity to get to play this spring.”

Ben Abram

Ben Abram

The experience is certainly in place. Catcher Justin Mitchell has 65 career starts. First baseman Tyler Hardman has 111. Second baseman Conor McKenna has 68. Third baseman Peyton Graham started all 18 games last season. Zaragoza, the shortstop, has 193. In the outfield, Tanner Tredaway has 58, Brady Harlan has 51, and Diego Muniz has 45.

On the mound, Olds has 36 career appearances, RHP Ben Abram has 19 (14 starts), RHP Jason Ruffcorn has 37 (16 saves), RHP Jaret Godman has 26, LHP Legend Smith has 43 and RHP Aaron Brooks has 33.

Graham is on the preseason Golden Spikes Award watch list, Ruffcorn, a preseason All-American, is on the Stopper of the Year watch list, and Graham, Hardman and Tredaway are on the Bobby Brahan Collegiate Slugger Award watch list. Graham and Tredaway each got All-American run, too.

The proof, of course, begins arriving Sunday, and will present itself one game at a time. 

It was a long, long line, but Sunday, finallthis team finally gets to eat.

“It just makes me appreciate the ability to play baseball more than anything else,” Ruffcorn said. “Just the fact that we’re still able to do this while we’re still in this pandemic, it just makes me happy to just get out there and compete.”