During the final weekend of the 2019 season, Texas head coach David Pierce was at a loss for words. Two years later, he finds himself leading the nation’s number two team into the College World Series.
The remarkable turnaround at Texas has earned little media attention, perhaps because of the program’s storied postseason history. But in 2019, it seemed that the Longhorns were getting nowhere fast.
Pierce’s squad, a year removed from an appearance in Omaha led by second baseman Kody Clemens, finished dead last in the Big 12 standings. Adding to the frustration, the Horns were the only Big 12 team that watched the entire conference tournament from home, as the Big 12 only conducted an eight-team tournament until this season.
Following a 2020 campaign cut short due to COVID-19, in which Texas posted a respectable 14-3 record, there was plenty of hype surrounding the team in 2021, with various degrees of expectation. College Baseball Nation ranked the Longhorns at #12 to start the year, but after a miserable 0-3 showing at the Globe Life Field Classic in February, they were dropped to #30. In fact, there was thought that 2021 might mirror 2019 in some form or fashion, with a talented team that simply failed to get the job done in critical moments.
But Texas quickly proved the doubters wrong, ascending to the top five in every major college baseball poll, putting together a 16-game win streak in the midst of conference play, and picking up notable series wins over TCU, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma.
The season will truly come full circle in Omaha on Sunday evening, as Texas gets set to face Mississippi State, the opponent that handed the Longhorns a 8-3 loss in Arlington some four and a half months ago.
“They’re just a really well-rounded team,” Pierce said of Mississippi State in a press conference on Thursday. “They have better team speed than most SEC teams.
“We talked about this yesterday. We’re not playing Mississippi State in a revenge game because we were 0-3 in Arlington and they were one of the teams we opened up with. That’s not what we’ve done all year. We understand that they’re a very good team, [but] our intent is to go out and focus on ourselves and our team.”
It would be foolish to think that the Texas team that stepped onto the field against the Bulldogs in late February is the same team stepping onto the diamond in Omaha this week. In fact, the turnaround from 2019 to 2021 has been huge, but the rapid development of this young squad from game one of 2021 to game 62 of game 2021 has been bigger.
Consider the performance of starter Pete Hansen, who will likely come out of the bullpen within Texas’ first two games. Against Mississippi State, Hansen, a hyped freshman after throwing 17 innings with zero earned runs in 2020, had an outing to forget, making it through just one inning, allowing three hits, a walk, and an earned run. It took him 27 pitches to finish the inning, and he looked out of sorts.
But in his first weekend start of the season against TCU on May 9, Hansen earned a win, going seven innings with just two hits allowed, three walks and zero earned runs.
“I don’t think you can sit back when you have spacing in this type of tournament, and not utilize one of your best guys, especially since he’s left handed,” Pierce said when asked about how he will use Hansen in Omaha.
Performances like Hansen’s throughout the second half of the season separated Texas from the rest of the pack. Though a 1-2 showing at the Big 12 Tournament left doubt in some minds as to whether the Longhorns were a legitimate national title contender, they breezed through the Austin Regional and Super Regional, going 5-0 and outscoring opponents 49-12.
The dominance brings back memories of the Horns’ 2018 run to Omaha, the first under Pierce, as Texas hosted both a regional and super regional, dropping just one NCAA Tournament game to Tennessee Tech before reaching Omaha. But in a press conference Thursday, Pierce said these two tournament runs feel vastly different.
“I think that team really overachieved in ‘18,” Pierce said. “I thought the pieces fell into place. We had a tremendous year by Kody, we had a tremendous year by David [Hamilton]. We pieced the pitching together but it wasn’t what our pitching is now. When you go to Omaha because your starting pitching gives you an opportunity, it is a different feeling.
“Going in there this year, there’s never been any thought of, ‘hey, we made it to Omaha.’ The only thought we’ve had is, ‘it’s the next step; we’re going to Omaha to win this thing.’ There is definitely a different feeling with this team going in.”
And what a stark contrast from the 2019 campaign. Two years ago, it seemed that little else could go wrong for the powerhouse program. This season, it seems that there was not much else Texas could have done right.
As soon as the 2019 season concluded, ironically, with a 6-4 win over Oklahoma, the sub-par performance from the team seemingly became a moot point. At Pierce’s fall press conference in September of that year, no mention was made of what had transpired in the spring. The focus was on the future, and there is no question that the Longhorns have turned a complete 180 from their last full season to 2021.
“The expectations have been set by previous teams. The history of this program has been set,” Pierce said. “When you come here, you understand that and you expect that as well.”