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TEAM PROFILE: Oklahoma Sooners
2011 record: 41-19 (NCAA Regional)
Final 2011 PG ranking: NR
Top returning players: INF Caleb Bushyhead, P Jordan John, INF Jack Mayfield, INF Evan Mistich, P Dillon Overton, OF Cody Reine, OF Erik Ross, INF Max White
Notable departures:C Tyler Ogle, 1B Cam Seitzer, P Burch Smith, 3B Garrett Buechele, P Ryan Duke, P Michael Rocha, P Tyson Seng, OF Chris Ellison, P Bobby Shore, OF Elliott Blair, OF Ricky Eisenberg, OF Casey Johnson
Areas of concern: Offensive production and getting the weekend rotation to rise to the occasion are concerns for the Sooners between now and February. The Sooners welcome back plenty of hitters with potential, but must replace their top five hitters from last year’s club, including Cam Seitzer, Ricky Eisenberg, Tyler Ogle, Casey Johnson and Garrett Buechele. Accomplishing that goal certainly won’t be an easy task, but it’s one OU must master if it wants to reach its goals in 2012. On the mound, the Sooners must replace Michael Rocha, Burch Smith and Bobby Shore, who accounted for 41 of 60 starts (68 percent) last season. OU feels great about Dillon Overton and Jordan John’s ability to develop into elite starters in the spring, but the proof is on the field. OU will experience a wealth of success should it rebuild those two areas.
What we think: Oklahoma tends to be to the Big 12 what Arkansas is to the SEC. Almost every time we expect the Razorbacks to take a step back in the SEC, they rise to the occasion and accomplish something special. OU has a tendency to do that, too. Will this Oklahoma team be like that? We’ll find out in a few months. The Sooners certainly have some big-time firepower to replace at the plate, but have some guys with potential, such Max White, Caleb Bushyhead, Erik Ross and Evan Mistich. Look for Oklahoma’s offense to be better than expected. On the mound, Overton and John should formulate a solid one-two punch, while OU could have the nation’s top newcomer in reliever/closer Damien Magnifico, who has touched 100-102 with command this fall. The Sooners will be an NCAA postseason club, but we’ll see if they can compete with Texas and Texas A&M for the Big 12 crown.
What they’re saying:“I honestly like our club a lot at this point in preparations. I’m a firm believer the team is only as good as the middle of your infield. I feel pretty good about those two positions, and of course, this team.” – Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway.
CB TICKET: Additional inside scoop on Oklahoma (11.9)
Oklahoma won 41 games last season with one of the nation’s most experienced teams. Now, the Sooners must uphold the same standard after losing 10 players to the MLB draft this past summer.
Given some of their personnel losses, it’s easy to assume the Sooners are destined for an uncharacteristic down campaign. The Sooners must replace their top five hitters and several pitchers – including 41 of 60 starts – from last season.
But while Oklahoma might be facing an uphill battle compared to Big 12 counterparts and leaders Texas and Texas A&M, coach Sunny Golloway is cautiously optimistic about his team’s potential in 2012. He suggests the Sooners are a team to watch.
“I like our club a lot at this juncture,” Golloway said. “We’re going to be pretty good in the middle of the field and I think we’re going to have four quality starting pitchers, among other things.”
The Sooners certainly have some talented pitchers to choose from in the spring, but replacing the departed arms won’t be easy. Michael Rocha had a great senior campaign, tallying a 1.75 ERA in 113 innings, Burch Smith had a 3.90 ERA in 87 2/3 innings and Bobby Shore had a 4.14 ERA in 54 1/3 innings.
Fortunately for OU, there are several talented options. Sophomore Dillon Overton impressed last season, tallying a 2.30 ERA in 74 1/3 innings, while redshirt sophomore Jordan John, who will be draft eligible in 2012, had a 2.35 ERA in 61 1/3 innings. Both pitchers are slated to be in the weekend rotation.
“I really thought Overton and John did pretty nice jobs last season,” Golloway said. “Those two guys, combined last season, went 12-6. I feel like those two guys have a chance to help formulate a special rotation in the spring.”
The final weekend rotation spot features some intense competition between LHP Steven Okert, RHP Jonathan Gray and RHP Steven Bruce.
Okert is a talented JUCO transfer the Sooners are excited about. Gray was drafted in the 10th-round by the Yankees this past summer and has been 95-97 mph at times this fall, and Bruce has been 94-95 mph out of the bullpen.
“All of those guys will compete for the four starting jobs between now and the spring,” Golloway said. “We’ve got a nice mix of left-handed and right-handed arms with those guys, so we’re going to find a good way to mix them up a little. I really think the starting rotation has a chance to be pretty special.”
As talented as the starting pitchers appear to be, Oklahoma’s top pitcher and newcomer could be JUCO transfer, right-hander Damien Magnifico. He has lived up to his name so far this fall, starring as the clear-cut favorite to be the Sooners’ closer with a fastball that approaches 100-102 on the radar gun -- both on the stadium radar gun, and recently on a gun held by a Toronto Blue Jays scout.
Though his fastball clearly is Magnifico’s dominant pitch, his arsenal includes at least two more pitches.
“He [Damien] has outstanding command, consistently works 97-98 and has been 100-102 at times this fall,” Golloway said. “He mixes three quality pitches in there, but let’s face it, he’s our closer and will prey on hitters’ anxiety with hard fastballs.”
Even with the impressive talent the Sooners have on the mound, only Overton and John are experienced at the Division I level, making the pitching staff an interesting unit to watch when the season arrives in February.
Speaking of potential, the Sooners also have plenty of it on the offensive side. OU finished last season with a fantastic .313 batting average, but has the task of replacing five productive hitters.
Evan Mistich, Erik Ross, Caleb Bushyhead, Max White, Jack Mayfield and Cody Reine, potential-wise, give the Sooners a strong nucleus.
Mistich batted .316 with two home runs and 16 RBIs last season, Ross batted .315 with 21 RBIs, Bushyhead battles injuries and hit .288 with 18 RBIs, White had a disappointing campaign with just a .286 average, three home runs and 20 RBIs, Mayfield hit .259 with a home run and 10 RBIs and Reine, who has lost significant weight since last season, hit just .256 with four home runs and 27 RBIs.
“We have a lot of guys back with a lot of experience, and that’s a good thing,” Golloway said. “I know we’re going to be able to hit when the season arrives. I’ve been pretty impressed with Reine. He has dropped some weight and is running well right now.”
Other position players to watch include JUCO transfer infielders Garrett Carey and Dustin Dishman, who are fighting it out for the starting job at third base. Additionally, the catcher position is wide open with freshman Hunter Lockwood, Dylan Neal, Tanner Toal and Jake Smith competing for the vacancy.
“Lockwood was a 16th-round pick and has to be in our lineup as of right now simply because he’s our best pure hitter at this point,” Golloway said. “Neal is a pretty good defensive catcher, Smith is very physical and Toal did a nice job backing up Tyler Ogle last season.”
Overall, Oklahoma isn’t going to dazzle anyone on paper before the season. The Sooners have several question marks offensively and on the mound. But when the 2012 season comes to a close, don’t be too surprised if the Sooners shatter preseason expectations.
OU has some uncertainty. It also has a wealth of talent.
Something has to give.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game USA and can be reached at email@example.com