David Pierce sat down for his press conference following the Longhorns 6-1 loss to Florida in an elimination game at the College World Series. The first statement out of his mouth was something everyone who follows college baseball could agree with.
“There’s nobody in this room and nobody in this country who expected this team to be here,” Pierce said. “And they did a heck of a job from start to finish, from the fall ball into early spring. The things that they had to accomplish to get here is incredible.And I can only saw how proud we are as coaches and the effort that they gave us and the way they represented the University of Texas.”
Entering the 2018 season, Texas faced the daunting task of replacing 11 MLB draft picks from a 2017 squad that reached the Long Beach Regional Final. It was a tall task, and Pierce, along with assistant coaches Sean Allen, Philip Miller and Phil Haig, filled the holes by bringing in several junior college players along with nearly a dozen freshman. When it was all said in done, nearly half Texas roster would be spending their first season on the forty acres.
“Coming in this year, people expected it to be a building year due to everybody we lost year,” junior Chase Shugart said following Tuesday’s loss.
“We had a lot of new guys that came in, and we didn’t know them at all,” Kody Clemens added. “And honestly the time that I was at UT we never really had an junior college guys come in. So it was different.”
In addition to all the new faces in the program, the injury bug struck Texas before the season even began. Junior college transfer Donny Diaz and freshman Cole Quintanilla, both of whom figured to be key parts of the Texas pitching staff, underwent Tommy John surgery, forcing them to miss the entire 2018 season. The transition of Chase Shugart from a reliever to a starter left the bullpen with major question marks, especially in the back end.
For the first month of the season, there were mixed results. Texas suffered a series loss at LSU and at home against Stanford while also being swept in a midweek series at Arkansas. Despite entering conference play with a 9-9 record, the Longhorns confidence never wavered. As conference play began, roles started to be established. Andy McGuire, who was not on the team the previous two seasons, emerged as the Texas closer. Parker Joe Robinson, a player Pierce admitted he wasn’t sure going to be a contributor on his team, had an ERA under 1.00 in Big 12 play. Duke Ellis cemented his place at the top of lineup and hit .390 during conference play.
Texas started to build momentum, and they rode the momentum all the way to Omaha, a place the Longhorns had not been since 2014, which felt like an eternity for a program that has a record 36 appearances on college baseball’s biggest stage.
It was not always pretty, as David Pierce admitted after Texas beat Tennessee Tech in game 3 of the Austin Super Regional, but it worked. From the moment he became the head coach, Pierce brought his style of baseball to Austin. He wanted the Longhorns to be mentally tough and have an edge.
“The attitude we had was gritty,” Chase Shugart said when asked to reflect on the season. “We weren’t given anything; we had to take it. We took the Big 12 championship, like we needed, and the Regional and the Super Regional.”
In just his second year in Austin, Pierce re-energized a program and a fan base hungry for success. Following Tuesday’s loss, he spoke with the media openly and honestly, making sure to point out the 2018 season was anything but a disappointment.
“This motivates you and this builds a culture of expectation from our program,” Pierce said. “And that’s the beauty of it. Their accomplishments were great, but what they’ve done for Texas athletics and Texas baseball is tremendous.”
Now, Pierce and his staff will go back to work, preparing for the 2019 season where the Longhorns will likely return 7 of 9 starters in the lineup. As he has done from the very beginning, Pierce talked about embracing the process and building off success.
“Hey, let’s build off of (this CWS appearance),” he said. “Let’s understand we are a pretty good team, especially when we do things together and do the little things. This wasn’t easy. For things to develop the way these kids allowed them to, and to accept the game and not force it, but to keep playing. I mean we go down the stretch, we are 3 (games) back going into the last weekend of the regular season, we sweep and roll through the regional and the supers, how can we regret anything.”
The 2018 season marked David Pierce’s first trip to Omaha as a head coach. It likely won’t be his last.
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