When Oral Roberts University alum Bill Springman arrives in Omaha on Thursday, joined by several fellow graduates, it will be the first time he has witnessed his alma mater take the field on college baseball’s biggest stage.
1978 was the last time ORU reached this point; when Rosenblatt Stadium served as home to the annual gathering of college baseball’s best, Jimmy Carter was president, and the NCAA Tournament field remained at just 48 teams.
Springman remembers that team–and season–like it was yesterday. He did not go to Omaha to watch that season. He went as ORU’s starting second baseman, a senior who would soon be drafted in the seventh round by the California Angels.
“When we hit the field for our first practice, everybody was awestruck,” Springman recalls. “You’ve reached the pinnacle at the highest level of college baseball.”
The 2023 squad became the second team in ORU’s long-spanning baseball history to reach Omaha when the Golden Eagles pulled away from Oregon in the decisive third game of the Eugene Super Regional on Sunday evening. For a team that entered the Stillwater Regional as a No. 4 seed, ORU is in the midst of a Cinderella-style postseason run.
“Our kids are smart,” ORU head coach Ryan Folmar told College Baseball Nation. “They continued to see the stat that 70% of [teams] that get out of the super regional win game one. They knew that, but they weren’t going to be part of that statistic. They decided, ‘It’s our time. We’re going to get this done.’”
Truth be told, ORU’s status as an “underdog” stems more from the name than the resume itself. A private Christian university of about 2,800 undergraduates in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Golden Eagles may not be the most recognizable name to the average viewer. But there is no question that they very much belong.
They took two of three from Texas State on the road in late February, beat Wichita State twice in midweek play, and handed Oklahoma State, the NCAA Tournament’s No. 12 overall seed, a pair of regular season losses. The 8-5 ORU win in Stillwater on April 11 marked the Golden Eagles’ third straight win over OSU.
“I hope they draw on those experiences,” Folmar said of his team, which carries a 51-12 record into the College World Series. “Going on the road in tough places to play and having success…hopefully that culminates in confidence. And I think this is a group that took all of those experiences and turned it into confidence. And you can see the way they’ve played at the end of the year.”
"I think their best overall characteristic is they love each other, there’s no one person that stands out, but they all work in their roles and play very well together as we did in ‘78.” -Bill Springman, ORU Baseball Alum
Springman, who still lives in the Tulsa area and often attends games and practices, sees several similarities between the two ORU teams to have reached Omaha. They share a number of characteristics, particularly in their rich team chemistry.
“This group is very cohesive,” Springman said. “That’s probably their best strength. Even though they’re solid in all three areas; pitching, defense, and hitting, I think their best overall characteristic is they love each other, there’s no one person that stands out, but they all work in their roles and play very well together as we did in ‘78.”
He also draws quick comparisons to the 1992 national championship Pepperdine squad, on which he served as the associate head coach. Despite winning a stacked West Regional, the Waves were the seventh-seeded team at the College World Series. Multiple opposing coaches failed to credit Pepperdine’s skill level and talent throughout the tournament, building motivation along the way.
“When you’re the top dog, it’s hard to do the expected,” Springman said. “That’s why a lot of people like to be the visiting team and the underdogs and love bulletin board material. Coach Folmar and the ORU coaching staff does a wonderful job of putting the team in the right mindset.”
Conversations with both first baseman Jake McMurray and left-handed pitcher Harley Gollert certainly backed up Springman’s second point. Teams do not get to this point in the season, as one of the final eight still standing, without an exceptional approach. And it almost always starts with focusing on the internal aspect of the squad, rather than the external comments being made, whether they be positive or negative.
“We understand that others might be disrespecting us because of our size of school or program, but truthfully, there’s a lot of belief in our dugout,” Gollert said. There’s belief that we’re just as good as anybody in the country and I think that goes a long way in not only performing, but also staying within ourselves.”
And that approach will not change later this week when ORU opens its second appearance in Omaha with a 1 p.m. matchup against TCU. “Obviously the stage will be bigger, and there will be lots more people,” Gollert added. “The atmosphere will be exciting. But at the same time, I think what allows us not to get ahead of ourselves in these big moments, despite not playing in front of tons of people during the season, is that there is truly a belief that we belong and are just as talented as anyone else in the field.”
Maintaining poise in the chaos
Perhaps what has fueled ORU’s fire the past two weeks is the fact that they have been front and center in some of the tournament’s most back-and-forth contests. Notably, after beating OSU 6-4 on the opening night of the Stillwater Regional, Washington put seven runs on the board in the first inning of the Saturday duel, and added another in the second. Down 8-0, something intriguing happened within the ORU dugout: the Golden Eagles regained their fight.
“In a strange way it almost juiced our guys up,” Folmar said. “In that moment, there was zero panic and zero doubt that we were going to win that game. It motivated our guys.”
That motivation revealed itself starting with a four-run third, then a three-run fourth. A five-run fifth put ORU up by four runs, as they ended up prevailing 15-12, having hit four home runs.
Fast forward to the second game of the Eugene Super Regional. Less than 24 hours before, ORU saw its 8-0 lead vanish in the form of nine unanswered Oregon runs. The last of which, scored by leadoff hitter Rikuu Nishida on Drew Cowley’s single to right field, ended the contest in walk-off fashion for the hometown Ducks.
That would not be ORU’s fate on Saturday night.
“I think at that time, it’s easy for a team to say, ‘It’s not meant to be,’” Folmar said of the defeat in the opening game of the super regional. “In no way shape or form was that what our team was about. You have experiences like we did [getting swept at Dallas Baptist] early in the year, where you get punched in the mouth. The question is, how are you going to respond?
Instead, the Golden Eagles returned the favor, as Justin Quinn’s perfectly-placed bases-loaded single with one out in the ninth dropped directly on top of the left field line, stunning Oregon in an 8-7 walk-off win.
“That’s the kind of group we have,” Folmar said. “They’re not going to quit. They’re not going to back down.”
“This is as close of a group as we’ve ever had”
Even going back to the fall, when the season opener against Northern Illinois was several months away, the team and its coaching staff knew something special was brewing. And that is saying something, considering ORU’s enormous success on the diamond over the last 45 years.
From 1998-2012, ORU reached the NCAA Tournament every year–15 seasons in all. Folmar served as an assistant with the program for the final nine years of the streak, and since joining the Summit League nine seasons ago–all under Folmar’s leadership as head coach–ORU has reached the NCAA Tournament on six occasions.
Yet, this group separated itself. It is hard to put a finger on just what it was, but Folmar noted it starts, quite simply, “with having good players” and exceptional leadership.
“Again I think it starts with our leadership council and how they’ve brought this team together,” Folmar added. “It’s as close of a group as we’ve ever had. It’s also as selfless of a group as we’ve ever had.
“There’s a lot of different components to being able to have a team like this. It all happened the right way. But it starts with good players, good leaders, work ethic, character, and integrity. This team epitomizes all of those.”
Gollert agrees. He noted that while several upperclassmen, such as McMurray, are entering their third, fourth or fifth seasons at ORU, there is also a significant group in their first season in the program. That group includes Gollert, who pitched five years at Austin Peay before transferring in prior to this season.
“There’s a bit of a common goal for all of us, coming from all of these different places,” Gollert said. “We’re old, experienced, and extremely deep. I’ve been on teams where it feels like, at certain points in the year, on the pitching side you run out of arms, or even the team in general relies on a few guys.
“But we haven’t felt like that. Being deep and balanced is something that really goes a long way in postseason baseball.”
Plate discipline has been pivotal
That depth is especially prevalent at the plate, where the lineup ranks fourth in the nation in batting average, hitting .323. From McMurray to center fielder Jonah Cox, to the power-hitting Quinn and on through the order, ORU’s offensive performance has turned heads. The Golden Eagles put at least six runs on the board in all three games at the Stillwater Regional, and continued staying in rhythm against Oregon, pushing at least seven runs across in each game of the three-game set.
“One through nine on this year’s club–which is very unique for any team across the country–they don’t give away at-bats,” Springman, who in the past served as a hitting coach in both the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers organizations, said. “The grind out every at-bat.
“They have a plan at the plate, and that’s a credit to the coaching staff. They take it pitch-by-pitch, moment by moment. Their plate discipline is very good and they know their strike zone.”
Embracing the moment
Each of these elements has played into the ultimate point of success currently guiding ORU into Omaha. This is a team that understands the history of the program they are a part of, and seeks to honor the tradition originally set forth by Springman and his teammates in ORU’s first NCAA Tournament run 45 seasons ago.
“Every day that we practice at J.L. Johnson [Stadium], we see the 1978 College World Series sticker on the wall,” McMurray said. “We wouldn’t be here where we are today without the foundation that was laid before us by the alumni.
“This is a special program. No matter what year you played here at ORU, you’re part of this family. This super regional championship and this college world series berth is not just shared by this group, but it’s shared by the countless number of players who have come before us.”
They have also been driven by a deeper purpose, a Christian faith that has kept them both grounded and united over the course of the season’s 63 games. At a university built upon Christian values, Folmar and his staff take great pride in leading their team in a way that glorifies God and keeps baseball in perspective through the ups and downs it brings.
“It’s a huge part of our identity,” Folmar said. “We’re very proud of the fact that we have a different value system than most. I think it adds a perspective to what is going on around you; our identity is not wrapped up in our sport, it’s wrapped up in Christ.
“We had the opportunity to walk around campus a little bit [after a workout on Friday morning at Oregon] and went into one of the bookstores. On a T-shirt, there was a quote from Marcus Mariota. I’m going to paraphrase it, but he said something to the effect of, ‘When adversity hits, when bad things happen, you always have your faith to fall back on.’ We’re fortunate to be grounded in that faith.”
"Everything we need is in this room.’ 32 guys against the world and here we are…one of the final eight teams.” -Jake McMurray, ORU First Baseman
And with that approach, it is onto Nebraska they go, playing another weekend in another state. They’ve gotten used to it by this point. The final regular season series came at Western Illinois, and the Summit League Tournament was held in Fargo, North Dakota. Then of course, the Golden Eagles took the short trip to Stillwater, and a much longer one to the west coast this last week.
“It has brought us closer together,” McMurray noted, describing the team as “road warriors”.
With one final destination for its historic season, ORU is driven by faith, anchored by a belief in one another, and marked by what has become an unwavering resilience in this postseason.
“We don’t even have a full roster of 36 guys,” McMurray said. “We have 32 guys in this room and we sat down at the beginning of the year and said, ‘Everything we need is in this room.’ 32 guys against the world and here we are…one of the final eight teams.”