For most non-NCAA collegiate baseball teams, a third-place finish in the NAIA World Series would be something to brag about for a few years.
But for the Oklahoma City University Stars baseball team, a club that tied for third in this year's series, the finish was a bit of a letdown.
"We really did not play anywhere close to our abilities in the national tournament," head coach Denney Crabaugh said. "We were just off."
That's not to say Crabaugh isn't proud of his team " he is " but he knows how good his players were and how close they came to winning a championship.
This year, the Stars compiled a 53 and 9 record, set an NAIA single-season record for home runs and had three players taken in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, including left-handed hurler Ashur Tolliver, the first player selected out of the NAIA, little brother of the NCAA.
To put it simply, this team was good. But that's nothing new for Crabaugh and the OCU baseball program, a place where excellence has become a tradition.
The 2009 season marked the 11th consecutive time the Stars have surpassed the 50-win mark in a season. Furthermore, the Stars played in the NAIA World Series 12 times, and in 2005, they took the trophy home.
But despite this history of dynasty-level domination, assistant coach Keith Lytle said the day after the Stars were knocked out of the World Series in May, he and Crabaugh started preparing the program for next year, refusing to rest on past accomplishments.
Lytle said everyone within the program is proud of OCU's winning heritage, but each year's team bears the individual responsibility of making its own name.
He said the outfield wall of OCU's baseball field is not littered with banners boasting of past accomplishments, of which OCU has many.
OCU has a 2005 national championship flag, Lytle said, but it rarely gets a chance to wave in the Oklahoma wind. He said he did have it raised, however, during practice before the Stars left for the World Series this season to remind the current players what they were working for.
And working is a hallmark of this program.
Athletic director Jim Abbott said Crabaugh and Lytle, who have coached together at OCU for more than 20 years, have enjoyed such success because of their tremendous work ethic.
Coaching at a small, private, NAIA school can be a challenge. The coaching staff is relatively small, unlike coaching staffs at large NCAA Division I schools like the University of Oklahoma or Oklahoma State University. Each coach at an NAIA school must do more.
Recruiting is often a challenge as well because many players have Division I aspirations. OCU can't offer the opportunity to play Division I, but it can offer the opportunity to win.
And because the school does not get as many top recruits as OU or OSU, Lytle said the recruits it does get have a better chance to play, increasing their potentials to get noticed by Major League scouts and get drafted.
Without question, the most successful former Star is Major League second baseman Freddy Sanchez, who transferred to OCU in 2000 for his senior season.
Following that year, the Boston Red Sox drafted him, and he currently plays for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team for which he was the National League batting champion in 2006.
Despite his success at a higher level, however, Sanchez has not forgotten his OCU roots. Crabaugh said Sanchez still calls Lytle for hitting advice, even when he's one of the league leaders in batting average.
Lytle said the trust-based relationship he has developed with Sanchez has made the OCU alum comfortable in asking for advice. Lytle doesn't mind that, but he said he refuses to talk to Sanchez when he is hitting well.
Crabaugh said Sanchez has called Lytle when he is tearing the cover off the ball, but Lytle wouldn't coach him, saying, "Hey, you're hitting .340. I'm not saying a word to you."
One of the OCU players drafted this year is Brent Weaver, a first baseman from Midwest City. Weaver, like Sanchez before him, arrived at OCU by way of transfer.
Out of high school, he went to OSU as a pitcher. Two arm surgeries and two school transfers later, and Weaver was donning the spikes for the Stars. He proceeded to clobber 61 long balls in a mere two seasons.
This season, Weaver hit 37 home runs, one round-tripper short of the NAIA record. And as if that wasn't enough, he was named the NAIA player of the year.
But three players drafted are not enough for Crabaugh and Lytle, just like one National League batting champ or another World Series appearance is not enough. So the pair will work all summer to recruit, work all fall to improve, work all winter to prepare and work all spring, as always, to win. "Will Holland