Western Oklahoma State College Pioneers compiled a 473-151 record over the past 10 years, making it to the National Junior College Athletic Association’s World Series tournament in eight of those seasons.
In 2011, the Pioneers won it all, in 2015 they finished runners-up, last year they finished fifth and this year they missed the tournament altogether.
This season the Pioneers enjoyed streaks of six, seven and nine wins before closing out the regular season on a 12-game win streak.
They were ranked fourth in the nation before it all went south.
“We went into the conference tournament ranked first in the conference with the second best conference record since I’ve been coaching and we lost two straight games. Now the season is over,” Head Coach Kurt Russell said. “I’m not too sure what happened. I just know we did not compete and play the way we had been playing and it was very disappointing to see that happen because this was a very talented club. It was a great learning lesson for myself, the team and the coaching staff.”
The losses to Redlands Community College and Northern Oklahoma College-Tonkawa were unexpected.
The Pioneers won season series against both of the teams four games to none and it seemed the first matchup against Redlands was a given.
But Redlands struck hard and fast, leaving the Pioneers reeling at David Allen Memorial Ballpark.
“We learned the lesson of never taking winning championships for granted. Championships are earned from going in and having the attitude that we are going to take this tournament, not that it’s going to be given to you,” Russell said. “Our opponents wanted to beat us more than we wanted to beat them. We will get that changed and continue to put the right talent on the field at Western.”
The team will lose the bats and exceptional fielding of some of their top players, but Russell is satisfied with the players he has coming in next year and those he will retain from this year’s group.
“We have a great recruiting class coming in with the right talent to put us right back into the same situation,” Russell said.
Bryan Hernandez was one of the top hitters for the Pioneers this season, finishing the year with a team-high .428 batting average that included 12 home runs, 64 runs and 66 RBIs. His run and RBI totals also led the team.
Taylor Avila was second on the team with a batting average of .383. He tied with John Lantigua and Raul Mercado for a team-high 14 home runs while scoring 54 times and bringing in 58 runs. Avila also had one of the top gloves on the team with a fielding percentage of .967. In 153 chances, Avila only committed five errors.
The Pioneers led the nation in runs, home runs, RBIs, extra base hits, total bases, stolen bases and slugging percentage. They also were fourth in batting with a team average of .355.
But even leading the nation in those categories does not equate to a championship, something every player on the team found out.
“We had a good season, we just didn’t finish the way we wanted to. This season really opened the freshmen’s eyes, especially during the postseason. They got to witness that talent doesn’t always win. We definitely had the most talent in the tournament and everyone knew that,” Avila said. “This was the most talented team I have ever been a part of, but I’m a big believer in everything happens for a reason. You can’t win them all but overall it was a great season. I think they are going to do big things next year.”
Russell is already planning for the next season.
It has never been the talent that wins championships, it is mental toughness, according to the coach who eats, sleeps and breathes baseball.
“I’ve got to do a better job next year of preparing the team for what happened this year but this season will make us much, much better,” Russell said. “We will work hard all year and be mentally ready for next season.”
Reach Ryan Lewis at 580-482-1221, ext. 2076.