My bloodline is baseball. I've known baseball since I was born.
My dad John played pro ball, my uncle Charlie played in the big leagues. Another uncle was a left-handed pitcher drafted in the first round and there are a ton of cousins and my brother Mason, who have all chased the dream of playing baseball at a higher level.
The combination of coming from such a baseball-rich family and being from Oklahoma has made the experience of being a Sooner baseball player a dream come true.
It has always been one of my biggest dreams, since I was a kid, to play for the Sooners. It has been an unbelievable pleasure to play for this school. These four years have been the best of my life and I’m just thankful for the opportunity, but I’m not ready for it to end.
Baseball is by nature a game of failure and the season is a grind. At Oklahoma, we’ve experienced the highs and lows of the sport as though riding a rollercoaster; in some cases doing so in just one weekend and repeating that up and down flow several times throughout the season.
My opportunity to be a part of this program did not present itself until late in my senior year of high school. At the time, I was committed to Fort Scott, a junior college in Kansas. I was lucky enough to have a pretty good senior year and after the state tournament I got a call from OU offering me a chance to be a part of this program. What an unbelievable feeling! It was a dream come true.
My goal coming in was definitely to be a starter my freshmen year. I really just wanted to be the hardest worker at all times and with a new staff that included Coach Hughes and Coach Anderson, and with new teammates, I just wanted to show them that I was here to help the team win games and do whatever I can.
I got my first start against Belmont in a freezing cold game. I had no idea I was going to start. I didn’t get a lot of sleep because I was up studying the night before and I was actually asleep on the couch in the clubhouse during the hitters meeting. Someone came in, woke me up and told me I was starting. It didn’t feel like a great way to start at the time, but I went out there and went 4-for-5 and hit two doubles and from there I was in the lineup a lot.
After a summer playing ball in California, I was ready to take on sophomore year until my first setback on the field. Against Purdue, I hurt my arm and it wasn’t until we returned from our series at Hawai’i that we figured out it was a torn labrum. I continued to play hurt the rest of the season before getting surgery in June of 2015. That injury affected me until close to halfway through my junior year. It was tough, but my mindset has always been to stay positive, keep working hard and try to control only what I can control.
I took the following summer off due to surgery. It then took until the beginning of my junior year to feel at full strength. Hitting right-handed pitching was proving to be tough after not getting the reps over the summer and I was primarily platooning at first base against lefties. Against No. 20 Mississippi State at Dodger Stadium, I was in the lineup against a left-handed starter and doubled on a 1-2 pitch to drive in a run and help start a rally to erase a four-run deficit.
The Bulldogs soon went to their bullpen and when it came time to hit again it was a righty on the mound. Coach Hughes chose to stick with me to lead off the inning. I struck out. However, it was on the 12th pitch of the at-bat after fouling off six two-strike pitches that allowed my teammates on deck a chance to see what they were facing. Steele Walker followed with a double and two singles later, including a clutch squeeze bunt by Ben Hollas, we were able to tie the game. The game finished in an anti-climactic tie, but it was a hard fought comeback as a team and as an individual it was a turning point at the plate.
Strike outs are rarely beneficial, but I did gain confidence from that at-bat. I was facing a good arm and seeing the ball well. It felt like I was right on it. That was a big game for building confidence after labrum surgery.
This past summer I got to play for the Hays Larks in the Jayhawk League after missing out on a summer of baseball for the first time in my life the year before. My experience in Hays was incredible. Coming back from injury and playing half of my junior year still getting healthy, this past summer was an opportunity to get a lot of my strength back, work on my swing, get a lot of at-bats and play first base every day. Going into it, I was uncertain what I was getting myself into by going up to Hays, Kansas. My first game, I hit a walk-off bomb and it was a really special moment. That set the tone. I was lucky enough to be around great coaches, a great group of guys and have a great summer. I was able to accomplish my goals by getting stronger, improve my swing and prepare me for my last spring as a Sooner.
The final chapter of my OU career showed promise from the start. It was really cool to see how this team gelled from the very beginning. All the freshmen and junior college guys that were brought in, bought into what we were doing right away. You could see that everyone was willing to work hard and do whatever they could to make themselves and the team better.
The fall went great for us. We had a lot of guys show a lot of improvement in a short period of time. I remember arriving for the first day of the semester and seeing Renae Martinez and seeing how much stronger he had gotten over the summer. He worked extremely hard to do that, which makes it no surprise to me to see the success he is having this year. I could say the same for a lot of guys on this team. They all busted their butts over the summer and came prepared in the fall to help us win in the spring.
One thing that has been a constant in my baseball career, beginning long before I stepped foot on campus in Norman, has been the backing I get from my family. I can’t say enough about the support I’ve had from my mom and dad since I was a little kid. Looking back at all of the travel ball teams, the summer games, time and investment they made to give me a chance to be successful is incredible. I would not be where I am today without them. My grandma, Mary Poplin, is a trooper too. She’s at almost every game. It’s pretty special to have their support. It means the world to me.
It was the ninth inning with two outs against Buffalo. A slow roller to third and when the throw came I never thought I was going to hit the runner. The throw kind of tailed on me at the last second to where I caught it and my feet were still planted so when the runner hit me all that force went straight into my arm.
I remember walking off the field, getting in to the training room with our athletic trainer Robert Fulton and my parents were in there and my mom was crying. I just had my head down just thinking why? In my mind, I’m not going to play for the rest of the year, but like I did before I kept a positive attitude, even if it meant coming back from a torn UCL in my left arm.
My hopes at a return started when our team doctor, Dr. Brock Schnebel first released me to take some swings. I was lucky enough to have a lot of strength still in my arm even though 50% of the forearm muscle was torn. It seemed weird that I could swing in two and a half weeks and I was surprised at how hard I could swing when I first came back. So I talked to Doc and they got me a brace that I’ve been hooked up with and I’ve been ready to go since.
Being a captain and being the only four-year guy I wanted to show these guys that I’m all in for this team and I’m committed to doing whatever it takes to help get this team wins.
I was super excited to get back out there and I think I really just wanted to show people that my injury wasn’t going to hinder my play a whole lot. I thought I had a lot to prove by going out there and performing and I was very happy with the way the game went and helping my team get the win my first game back.
I returned to the lineup, playing first against Oral Roberts on April 4. My night started with three groundball outs that ended in my glove for a quick top of the first. At the plate, I grounded out and flew out to deep center in my first two at-bats. Needing a two-out knock in the sixth, I was able to put a ball on the ground up the middle and feel the satisfaction of a base hit. We would score our first run of the night that inning to cut the deficit to 2-1. We tied the game in the seventh when Steele doubled. A walk loaded the bases and I came to the plate. I waited for my pitch and got one to drive the other way. The ball left the yard and my grand slam stood up as the game-winner.
We were riding high as a team on that night and at that point in the season, but the roller coaster that is the baseball grind soon spun us for a loop. In the next 10 games, we managed to win just once. When we finally came out of it and began to take our season back with a couple series wins on the road, we knew we were ready to take the next step and make a statement.
No. 5 TCU came to town for our final home series. It was an incredible series for both teams. Scoring back-and-forth, clutch hitting, strong pitching, home runs and small ball. The series had everything. We were on the wrong end of it in Friday’s opener, but we never got down. On Saturday, we came back to win and even the series on a walk-off bomb from Renae.
Sunday we went out to a big lead and I had a three-run jack in there. TCU is a tough team and they kept coming at us; eventually taking the lead. Guys kept battling and fighting for us, putting us in a position to win the game. In the ninth, with the score tied, I singled in the winning run for a walk-off to take the series.
I was so proud of our guys. Give a lot of credit to TCU because it was a dog fight all weekend. Renae was the hero in game two and he’s the reason we had a chance to win that series on Sunday. Then he comes back and gets a bunt down in the ninth to give me the chance to win us a game. That’s what this team is all about. It’s just helping each other and picking each other up.
I feel something special about this team. You look around at our seniors and those guys are all unbelievable examples for the younger guys. I think when you have that kind of leadership, it breeds leadership. We have juniors, sophomores and even freshmen who I believe to be tremendous leaders. When you have teams like that, they hold each other accountable and that’s what makes a really good team.
We all look forward to going to the park every day. I love these guys. I’ve got to step back sometimes and realize we get to play baseball at what I think is the best university in the world.
We’ve got some unfinished business, but as long as we continue to play hard every day, play for each other and have fun there’s no way this game of failure can be anything less than a success.