When the spring baseball season arrived, the Rams came in swinging.
Now, midway through the season, the action still hasn’t stopped.
Ranked No. 2 in the Sooner Athletic Conference, the Rams have a 10-2 conference record, and a 22-7 overall record.
The Rams are currently on a nine-game win streak, and there’s not a single bead of sweat in sight.
“So far, I would say that things are goin’ well,” senior right-hand pitcher Brad Sugg said. “We’re comin’ together and pretty much just winnin’ series to get into the conference tournament, then to the regionals, and hopefully the World Series after that.”
Senior outfielder and criminal justice major C.J. Ateek attributes the team’s success to great chemistry and being disciplined to play as a unit.
“Everybody knows their role,” Ateek said. “If a situation comes where our best hitter needs to put a bunt down, without hesitation, he’s going to put a bunt down. And not hit a home run when he probably could. We’ve all just bought into the mentality of, ‘Well, what can I do for this guy to score or move him so the guy next to me can score him?’ And that’s been the biggest help to us.”
Sugg, an exercise science major, has been a leader on the field, notching 41 strikeouts with an ERA of 1.69, according to ramsports.net.
Another leader on the field is senior outfielder Kiki Menendez, who joined the Ramily just last year. As record on dakstas.net, this season he’s at a batting average of .444 with a slugging percentage of .949, and has hit 13 home runs for the Rams, the second highest number for NAIA Division 1 schools. On March 26, Menendez was named SAC Player of the Week, just after playing his third multi-homer game within a two-week period, according to ramsports.net.
“Kiki’s really hot right now,” Sugg said. “For the returning guys, a lot people are having to step up. Dusty’s (Cloud) getting a lot more innings this year. Julio (Ibarra), he’s not having the same year as last year, but every time he comes off the bench, he pinches it.”
The Rams’ dominance is even more impressive considering the troubles they’ve faced amid trying to maintain their performance. Those troubles include a shortage in the bullpen, injuries, and, of course, the loss of their head coach, Mike Jeffcoat, who was fired March 1.
Cloud, a senior pitcher, said the offense has been stepping up to balance out the shortage of players, which includes a shortage of pitchers.
“Offense has definitely picked us up, scoring runs on the side, making it easier for guys to go in and pitch with a lead,” Cloud, a criminal justice major, said. “But it’s just guys knew they’d have to go out there and compete every single day. Just keep us in the ball game, no matter if they had their best stuff.”
Like Cloud, Ateek believes the team’s tenacity comes from simple responsibility.
“Just knowing that we don’t have the best bullpen with numbers, there’s not enough guys,” Ateek said. “We knew that if everybody did their part, we’d make it work. And that’s just what we’ve been doing so far.”
While the controversy over Jeffcoat’s email to a prospective player from Colorado, and his subsequent termination, gained national attention, it didn’t hinder the team’s focus or momentum.
“I think all of us were really wanting to just put the Jeffcoat situation behind, and continue to back him up the best we can,” said Ted Wisdom, a senior outfielder and mass communication major. “It was at first a shock to us. But we quickly put it behind us because we were trying to reach our overall goal.”
Sugg said the team “still has a job to do.”
“I think that no matter what we still have, the core group that has that gut feeling from last season’s loss,” he said, referring to the Rams’ loss in the opening round of the 2017 NAIA National Tournament. “You’re not here just because you like this, like that. You’re here to play and that’s the main goal.
Assistant coach Bobby Garza is the interim head coach. So far, several players say, he has done a good job in picking up where Jeffcoat left off.
“In the couple days after all of that stuff happened, coach Garza and coach (Kelly) Shoppach both wanted us to know they were going to be there for us and guide us through that situation,” Wisdom said. “They let us know they’ll be there for us through baseball and even after baseball.”
Troubles aside, the baseball Rams have their heads held high, confident in a bright future.
“I think our motivation, for all the returners, is getting so close to being in a World Series last year and just comin’ up short,” Cloud said. “All the people returning from that team understood, ‘A’ight, that’s what it takes at that point, we need to work harder so we can get to the World Series and be in Idaho when it comes late June instead of going home empty handed like we have the last couple of years.’”
For now, still in conference play, the team’s taking it one series at a time.
“The more games we win, the better off we are in the conference tournament,” Sugg said. “You win the conference tournament, that’d be first seed. Definitely, I think we’ll be able to get to regional. And at regional, it’s just about who gets to come out and play.”
The Rams’ next home game is 3 p.m. April 3, when the team takes on Texas A&M-Texarkana at Sycamore Park.