Despite losing some key pieces from last year’s team that finished third at the College World Series, the Angelo State baseball team is back in Cary, North Carolina again.
The Rams (50-12) have won 23 of their last 25 games heading into their CWS opener at 12:30 p.m. Sunday against Southern New Hampshire (46-10).
“I think it’s just a credit to our players and our assistant coaches,” longtime head coach Kevin Brooks said. “What a job they’ve done. It’s unbelievable. We have a goal of getting guys better, and we’ve been pretty good at doing that.
“You’ve got to have really good guys coaching them, and then you’ve got to have guys who are receptive and willing to maybe try some different type things and buy in 100% the way they have. They deserve it and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
The double-elimination CWS runs through June 11, and all ASU games will be carried live on KWFR 101.9-FM.
The winner of No. 5-seed ASU and No. 4 SNHU will play either top-seeded North Greenville (50-10) or No. 8 seed West Chester (34-13) on Tuesday. The ASU-SNHU loser will face the loser between North Greenville and West Chester in an elimination game the same day.
ASU had to replace some top-notch players from last year’s 44-9 to make it back to Cary.
Trent Baker, the Rams’ ace pitcher last year, was a ninth-round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals last summer.
Josh Elvir was a two-time Lone Star Conference Player of the Year who set conference and school records with 44 career home runs.
Nick Novak was a standout infielder who also set school records with the most career hits and stolen bases.
The Rams added some new pieces to the lineup, and now they’re chasing their first national title in their fifth CWS appearance.
Brooks’ wife, Robyn, found out over a year ago that her birthday was going to fall on the weekend of Super Regionals.
“For a year, when she found out the date, she was like, ‘All I want for my birthday is to win the Super Regionals,’ ” Brooks said. “I didn’t get her a very good present, so there was a lot of pressure (last) Saturday to make sure we won.
“And I was like, ‘Man, that’s a pretty tall birthday wish.’ I always have to think through, and it’s possible, but we have to have a lot of things go right. And it’s funny, none of those things went right, and yet, here we are.”
After losing Game 1 of the Super Regional against No. 2 seed Colorado Mesa last Friday at home 12-8, ASU swept two games Saturday in emphatic fashion, 12-3 and 16-6, to earn a trip back to North Carolina.
“We’re really excited to get back there,” ASU senior pitcher Benjamin Elder said. “I really like the group of guys we’ve got, just the sheer competitiveness that our team brings to the table day in and day out. I think we have a really good shot of making a pretty good run, for sure.”
The Rams came closer than they ever have before to winning the whole enchilada last year, falling 8-7 to eventual national champion Wingate in the semifinals.
They’re ready to close the deal now.
“Last year, we had a great group of guys and we came up a little short,” Elder said. “Some things didn’t go our way, but that’s just baseball, just like life, you know.
“What I will say is with this team we’ve got this year, there’s no moment’s too big for us and that’s really going to benefit us. We have a lot of guys who were on that team last year. We’ve been there and we know what to expect, and we’re just ready to get out there and compete.”
And then, without hesitation, Elder said, “I think we’re going to win the whole thing.”
Third baseman Jordan Williams, a graduate student who has another year of eligibility due to COVID and being redshirted, was confident that the Rams could get back to the CWS.
“I knew there was going to be a lot of hard work,” Williams said. “It’s been real sweet this year and it’s been different. It’s been one of the sweetest rides because of the uncertainty, but one thing about these guys, it’s been such a pleasure to come to work.
“These guys work hard. It’s the hardest-working team I’ve been on. All the guys have bought in and it’s been so much fun. We’re looking forward to finishing the job these next few weeks.”
ASU is the top-scoring team in all of D-II with 629 runs (10.7 per game). The Rams are also third in batting average (.362) and they have the second-most hits (697) and the most doubles (162).
The Rams can torment teams by playing small ball — bunting, stealing bases, drawing walks, etc. But they’re also capable of driving the ball out of the park.
“The best teams in the country can win every single way, and that’s something we pride ourselves in,” Williams said. “We can hit the ball out of the park, we can bunt, we run and we play good defense.
“We also take pride in our coaches and our training staff to do a good job keeping us in shape. We just let the game play and we just try to do whatever’s laid out for us.”
Two Rams seniors — first baseman Aaron Walters and outfielder Justin Lee — were named this week to the National College Baseball Writers Association All-American Team. Lee earned first-team honors and Walters received an honorable mention.
Walters is hitting .404 with 21 doubles, a triple and an on-base percentage of 1.125. He leads the team in homers (10) and RBIs (85).
Lee is hitting .443 with 20 doubles, 4 triples, 9 homers, 80 RBIs and an OPS of 1.268.
The Rams’ senior outfielder can’t wait to see what ASU can do this time in Cary.
“Our confidence is at an all-time high,” Lee said. “We’re all on Cloud Nine right now and we’re excited for this weekend. Business is definitely not done.
“We’re going to come out and compete like we did last year, but instead of falling short, we’re going to finish with two more.”
As much as the Rams love to play at home, ASU is 24-0 on the road in 2022.
“Sam Jansa, who was a great pitcher here for us, he donated the money to pay for that and allow us to charter everywhere and allow us to stay instead of being 20 dudes to a room,” Brooks said. “There’s a big correlation between those two.
“This is more than a ‘this team’ thing. This is every person who’s been a part of this program and the community that’s supported us. It’s cool to be a part of it.”
The Rams are hoping to get off to a fast start with a win against Southern New Hampshire in Sunday’s CWS opener.
“They were in our bracket last year,” Brooks said. “We didn’t play them. They played two one-run games and got beat in both of them. They’re good, largely returning (most of their roster).
“They’re big, they’re physical. They’re really good and it’s going to be a challenge. We’re looking forward to the challenge and we’ll see what happens.”
The Rams don’t know if freshman second baseman Austin Beck, the LSC Freshman of the Year, will be able to play in the CWS due to a hand injury. He came in late in Saturday’s decisive game of the Super Regional.
When the Rams swept a four-game LSC series on the road against St. Edward’s back in April, Brooks told his players that every team has an identity and that theirs is that they just win.
“It’s a different person every time,” Brooks said. “It’s a true team. You don’t know how we’re going to do it, but they seem to find a way to do it.”
What will the Rams’ longtime skipper be feeling like if ASU wins the championship?
“I’d be so happy for them and really for every person who’s been through the program,” Brooks said. “We talk about that at the end of every year that we’re going to get this done.
“And when we do, that team’s going to get a lot of recognition, but it’s been every person who’s been through this program, everybody who supports us. I want it so bad for them, and maybe this will be the group that does it.”
As much as they want a national championship for themselves, the Rams are just as hungry to put another feather in Brooks’ cap.
“I want it for coach Brooks more than anything in the world actually,” Elder said. “There’s no coach more deserving to get a national championship than coach Brooks in my opinion.”
The Rams know that only a small number of fans will be able to make the trip to North Carolina, but those who can’t make the games will be watching online and listening to the radio broadcasts.
“Last year, we were however many thousands of miles away, but you definitely could feel the support and encouragement from the people in San Angelo, just getting pictures and videos from all the watch parties,” Brooks said.
“And I know the last couple of weeks just going to the grocery store, it takes me awhile because of so many people coming up and giving us positive thoughts. It’s just so awesome, and that’s what makes this community so special, and I’d love to do it for San Angelo, too.”
This article originally appeared on San Angelo Standard-Times: Angelo State baseball team hopes to bring home elusive World Series title