On a typical Saturday morning during the springtime in the Tulsa suburb of Owasso, Okla., the place to sit down and talk a little baseball over a hearty breakfast is Trails End BBQ. It’s a first-rate, barbeque-style restaurant locally owned and operated by proprietor John Cash for the past 17 years.
Seated at one table on those Saturday mornings just might be members of the coaching staff from national baseball power Owasso High School. It’s possible the coaches will be enjoying The Trail Boss (two 3 oz. center-cut pork chops with two eggs and biscuits and gravy, or toast, hash browns and grits). Or, perhaps, the selection will be The Ribs and Eggs (two meaty smoked ribs with two eggs and biscuits and gravy, or toast, hash browns and grits).
Owasso HS head coach Larry Turner is sure to be part of the group, and it’s doubtful there is anyone in town more recognizable. This week Turner will begin his 36th year on the Owasso baseball coaching staff, his 32nd as head coach.
Turner is appreciative of his surroundings and even more so of the support he receives from within the community. “He’s a great supporter of Owasso athletics and he loves Owasso baseball,” Turner said of Cash. “He’s a good man, there’s no doubt about it.”
Make no mistake – this is a mutual admiration society. Cash is big supporter of every Owasso High School athletic program, but it is Turner’s championship-level baseball program that is the most beloved.
“Monday (Feb. 17) is our first scrimmage game and I will be there,” Cash told Perfect Game over the telephone last week. “That’s when everything will start and that’s when the fever is going to start. I’ve got all kinds of customers that come in here because they either had a kid play or they had a grandkid play and we get a lot of traffic. During baseball season there’s always baseball talk going on and we get excited.
“Baseball season is my thing, so any game that I can make it to my staff here at the restaurant knows that during baseball season they’ll see a lot less of me.”
Rick Heaton has enjoyed a front row seat watching the Owasso High baseball program evolve into one of the country’s best from his position as the sports editor and associate editor at the weekly Owasso Reporter newspaper for the last 10 years. Originally from Kansas, Heaton has slipped seamlessly into the fabric of the Owasso baseball culture.
“It’s kind of the thing to do,” Heaton said of attending an OHS baseball game during the spring season. “You see the lights on, they put a sign out by the road and you can’t find a parking spot. Once the season gets going and once we get to state, we just pack the place. If (townspeople) aren’t at the game, they’re thinking about it, or looking online or looking on Facebook to find out how they did.”
The words “once we get to state” may sound like an off-handed remark, but that’s understandable. The people of Owasso rightly assume the Rams will be playing for a state championship every year. It’s the just the way it is.
LARRY TURNER GRADUATED FROM OWASSO HIGH SCHOOL IN 1973 and after college careers at Connors State College, a junior college in Warner, Okla., and NAIA-affiliated Phillips University in Enid, Okla., he returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach in 1978. He took over as the program’s head coach four years later and after 31 seasons he’s compiled a record of 969-221.
The Rams advanced to the state tournament for the 16th time in 17 years in 2013, and played in the state championship game for the 15th time during that run. Last year’s 5-1 championship game victory over Norman North High School at Ed Skelton Field in Shawnee was Owasso’s ninth state championship in 17 years and the school’s 12th overall. The Rams finished 36-0 to become the first Oklahoma Class 6A team to complete an undefeated season; Turner was named the NFSHA national coach of the year.
That team was led by left-hander Austin Kerns (now at Arkansas), shortstop Andrew Rosa (Oklahoma State), first baseman Austin O’Brien (Oklahoma) and right-hander Cody McGill (Seminole State); a total of 11 2013 Owasso graduates are playing college baseball at some level this spring.
But even with all that talent on the roster, an undefeated season was simply unimaginable.
“It was quite a ride,” Turner said last week. “I think bowling a 300 (game) or having a perfect season, you have to have a break here or there or have something go your way, and it just worked out that way for us. When we got to 26 or 27 victories, somewhere along there, somebody said something that maybe it would be good to lose a game, and I’m thinking, ‘Shoot I don’t ever want to lose a game.’ Just to give one away or something, I wouldn’t ever want to do that.”
As the season unfolded and anticipation mounted, the players remained unfazed. The Rams finished the regular season 30-0 and then won three more games to reach the state tournament.
“I remember talking to Coach Turner, and I said, ‘Are you going to run the table on this thing?’” The Reporter’s Heaton recalled. “And he said, ‘I haven’t told anybody (this) but, yeah, I think we can.’ And then he said, ‘but don’t tell anybody.’”
The eight-team state tournament field included long-time adversaries Broken Arrow High School – winner of the 2011 and ’12 Class 6A state championships – and Jenks High School. Owasso responded by beating Edmond Santa Fe, 11-1, in the quarterfinals and Broken Arrow, 5-3, in the semifinals before dispatching Norman North in the championship game.
The table had been run; the bar had been set unbelievably high.
THE 2014 EDITION OF THE RAMS ARE SCHEDULED TO OPEN PLAY ON FEB. 21 AT HOME against Jenks. No one expects another undefeated championship season but, as unfair as it might be, most of the people in the city of just more than 30,000 folks expect the Rams to be a part of the eight-team Class 6A state tournament field for the 17th time in 18 years. Owasso is No. 7 in the Perfect Game Preseason National High School Rankings, the highest-ranked team from Oklahoma.
The top returnees are (all seniors) right-hander Braden Webb (a South Carolina recruit), left-hander Jeb Bargfeldt (Wichita State), first baseman/outfielder Mason O’Brien (Oklahoma State) and shortstop Jonah Bride (Neosha County CC). O’Brien tore an ACL two weeks ago and is lost for the season, according to Turner.
Webb and Bargfeldt will drive this train. Webb is a 6-foot-4, 195-pound righty ranked 108th nationally in the class of 2014 (No. 3 Oklahoma) and Bargfeldt is a 6-foot, 170-pound lefty ranked in the top-500 nationally (No. 15 Oklahoma). It should be a solid group from top to bottom.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate in that our kids buy into what we’re trying to get done,” Turner said. “A lot of times we don’t have the best players, we just maybe have the best team; kids don’t try to do more than they’re really capable of doing and playing their part. Just that tradition that we have going here, they don’t want to be the ones to break it or be highlighted on the negative side instead of the other way of winning the thing,”
Turner added that's he’s also looking forward to coaching his sophomore son, Dodger, over the next three years (Dodger is currently sidelined with a broken thumb). Turner, his wife Kim and two of his daughters, Tiffanie and Meg, all teach at Owasso. A third daughter, Jillie, is still in college. Tiffanie is her dad’s director of baseball operations and Meg is an Owasso HS volleyball coach.
“One of the coolest things with my family is that we all love baseball and we’re all around the ballpark all the time, and that just adds to everything,” Turner said.
It would not be a reach to imply that Turner’s immediate family also includes many of his assistant coaches. Steve Holleman has been with Turner “since day one” and Brent McConnell is also a long-time aide.
“We all have our areas that we are pretty strong-suited in,” Turner said. “I let my coaches, coach. I’m not the smartest person in the world and I’m not going to pretend to be – I’m not going to micro-manage when it comes to coaching. I’ve been blessed, there’s no doubt. We’ve had really good players and we’ve had some good coaches that have made some of these kids better.”
Joe Patterson, a 2006 Owasso graduate who eventually landed at Texas A&M where he was a teammate of the St. Louis Cardinals 2013 postseason sensation Michael Wacha, joined the staff last year and added another element of expertise.
“We have that youthful kind of energy going on and he brings in some ideas and the ways they did things at Texas A&M and that stepped us up another notch in the way we do things,” Turner said.
That way of doing things has produced some fine young men, most of whom go on to become valuable contributors to the community – regardless of the community they end up in later in life.
“They do such a great job of raising the kids,” Trail End’s Cash said of the coaching staff. “Kids have to say ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, sir’ to their teachers and they have to be respectful. … They’ve called me Mr. Cash for years now and I’ve tried to get some of them to call me John, but old habits are hard to break.”
“There are a lot of kids whose dads played for (Turner) and now they’re playing (for Turner),” The Reporter’s Heaton added. "It'd just a family thing – you’ve got brothers playing, and people move into town just so they can be a part of this. Dylan Bundy moved in here from a town pretty close by because he wanted that coaching, he wanted that stability and what he could get out of this program; it sure worked out for him.”
BROKEN ARROW IS ARGUABLY OWASSO’S BIGGEST RIVAL and that rivalry drew national attention in 2010 and 2011 when Owasso HS could trot Perfect Game All-American right-hander Dylan Bundy (originally from Sperry, Okla.) out to the mound and Broken Arrow HS could counter with Perfect Game All-American right-hander Archie Bradley.
Bundy, who made his big-league debut with the Baltimore Orioles last season, was the fourth overall pick of the O’s in the first round of the 2011 MLB amateur draft, and Bradley wasn’t far behind when he was selected seventh overall in the same draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
It is not uncommon for the two Class 6A powerhouses to meet at state-of-the-art ONEOK Field, the home of the Double-A Texas League Tulsa Drillers, and have more than 7,000 fans show up.
“We’re not going to have 10,000 (fans) at a game like football but it is as big as it gets around here when we play Broken Arrow,” Turner said. And the 2010 and 2011 seasons brought even more attention.
“I don’t think the coaches particularly liked it because they were on the phone with the scouts and the media all the time. It was mayhem for about two years,” Heaton said. “When (Bundy) was going to pitch, man, there were a lot of radar guns in the stands.”
Bundy is one of four Owasso High graduates who have made their debuts in Major League Baseball, and that includes St. Louis Cardinals middle-infielder Pete Kozma, a first-round pick out of high school in the 2007 MLB amateur draft. Four other former Rams are currently playing in the minor leagues.
Broken Arrow and Jenks have also sent players into the big leagues and professional baseball in general – not to mention the college ranks. Owasso and Jenks play in the same Oklahoma Class 6A district and will meet at least three times during the regular season. Owasso and Broken Arrow have a non-district game scheduled for 7 p.m. on April 25 at Owasso High School.
TURNER, CASH AND HEATON DON’T LIVE IN A DREAM WORLD. They are aware of their surroundings. They realize they live, work and play in Oklahoma, where coaches like Bob Stoops at the University of Oklahoma in Norman and Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater are kings of the hill. They are football coaches, of course, and football rules the roost.
“We get a lot more people at the football games and football is king down here in Oklahoma,” The Reporter’s Heaton said, “but if anything is close, it’s the baseball team. ... The little kids see the big kids play and they want to be like that someday. They want that (championship) ring; they want that dog-pile. The dog-pile is the big thing; they want to jump in that dog-pile.”
Ah, the championship celebratory dog-pile. It might have been what got Cash hooked on the program right off the bat, shortly after he opened his restaurant 17 years ago and when he immediately began hosting the Rams’ postseason banquet. He has what he calls a “sports room” in his rib-joint that pays homage to all of OHS’s athletic teams, but admits that “about 90 percent” of the photos and other memorabilia in the room are dedicated to the baseball team.
“I’ve been working with the baseball program the longest and they’re obviously my favorite,” Cash said. “Whenever (any sports team) comes in we try to make sure they get enough to eat even if we need to go get them some more ribs, or whatever. We want to do whatever we can to help the coaches motivate the kids to keep playing and do something positive with their lives.”
If Coach Turner can squeeze 31 wins out of this year’s team – a total that would require a fairly deep run into postseason play – he will reach the 1,000 victory mark for his 32-year head coaching career at OHS. One thousand victories over 32 years divide-out to 31.5 wins per year, for those doing the math.
“We’ve had great support from our school and our community,” Turner said. “Of course, football is king in Oklahoma generally, but we get great support from the community, no doubt. A time or two people have asked me if I’ve ever thought about going somewhere else but I’m smart enough to know that this is a great gig right here.”