It hit me in the eighth inning of Oregon’s 8-1 regional clinching victory over Austin Peay last Sunday.
This is a big deal. Like, a really big deal.
George Horton and the Ducks are now two wins away from the holy grail of college baseball — a trip to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series. That’s 54 outs away from just the second trip to Omaha in school history, and the first since the program was reinstated. It would be the realization of the dream of the fathers of the modern era of Duck baseball — former University president Dave Frohnmayer and former athletic director Pat Kilkenny, among others. I’m told some guy named Phil was critical too. @@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=205436154@@
In putting together that new program, the Ducks found a legendary coach in George Horton. With a pitching-first brand of small ball a frustrated Austin Peay head coach Gary McClure called “West Coast baseball,” Horton had a storied career as the skipper at Cal State Fullerton. Horton’s programs were so consistently good he felt comfortable saying to a recruit, “If you play for me for four years and give your all, you will play in Omaha.”
That’s not arrogance either; it’s backed up by Horton’s successes. As the Titans head coach, Horton made six trips to Omaha in ten years, winning the College World Series in 2004 with Ducks second baseman Aaron Payne as the bat boy (no, really). @@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?SPSID=94834&SPID=11401&DB_LANG=C&DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=1205425&Q_SEASON=2011@@
That’s what the Ducks have a chance to accomplish this weekend, and they have the significant advantage of doing so at home. Of course, whether in their Super Regional series with Kent State in Kent, Ohio or on the moon, what the Ducks need to do remains the same.
Like any successful team, Oregon has had its heroes. Alex Keudell has 11 victories on the year (and 23 for his career) — both Oregon records — and Kyle Garlick leads the Ducks with 40 RBI, many of which have come with two outs, but the story of the Ducks’ year goes beyond these stars. It’s the unsung heroes, such as Ryan Hambright coming more or less out of nowhere and hitting above .600 in the Eugene regional. It’s Jeff Gold taking over Oregon’s Sunday starting pitching duties after what has to this point been a season-ending injury to Brando Tessar (though Horton hasn’t ruled out a return), and it’s Kevin Shepherd playing some of the most consistent defensive baseball in the Pac-12 when he was forced to take over for J.J. Altobelli. @@http://www.pac-12.org/portals/7/images/baseball/stats/2011-12/HTML/ore.htm@@ @@http://pac-12.org/SPORTS/Baseball/Tabid/1448/Article/156660/2012-Baseball-All-Conference-Team.aspx@@
Yes, this is a team in the truest sense of the word.
It’s a team that does the little things right and the big things right. They may have missed out on a Pac-12 title when they got roughed up by Oregon State on the season’s last weekend, but baseball is a game of averages. One good weekend, or one bad one, doesn’t begin to tell the story of an entire season.
The Ducks weren’t perfect, but they won two out of three enough times to make the postseason, and the teams they beat gave the Ducks a good enough resume to host not just a Regional, but a Super Regional. Now, they’re two wins away from Omaha — that’s two wins away from making it all worth it. Two wins away from proving they belong.
But they’re also two losses away from thinking about next year.
The Ducks have to privately feel a bit fortunate to be matched up with the Golden Flashes. The Mid-American conference is certainly no Pac-12, but any team still playing can not be taken lightly. It’s easy for me to sit here and think about how cool it would be for the Ducks to earn a College World Series berth, and it would be a monumental moment in the history of Oregon sports, but it’s all hypothetical right now.
Still, given talent and maturity the Ducks have on their roster, I like the odds.