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Five fall keys: Oklahoma yearns for even more

Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway still hears the whispers at times.

They’re the whispers of critics who doubted the Sooners returned enough personnel last season to make an NCAA postseason appearance, much less a trip to the College World Series.

On paper, it seemed the Sooners were devastated by the MLB draft two summers ago. But OU soon proved that what is on paper isn’t always reality.

The Sooners stormed through the conference portion of their schedule with few hiccups outside the home series against rival Texas. They also accomplished enough to host an NCAA regional before hitting the road and upsetting heavily favored Virginia in super regional action to get to Omaha for the first time in the Golloway era.

Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway has plenty of reasons to be excited about his team.
(Associated Press)

What OU accomplished last season was special. Now, this team wants more.

OU continues fall workouts with few holes to fill. It must find a way to replace weekend starter Zach Neal and reliever Jeremy Erben, but otherwise is in great shape on the mound.

At the plate, the Sooners welcome back most of their key hitters and will enter next season looking to improve on their .307 batting average last season.

Oklahoma took a huge step forward with a trip to Omaha just a few months ago.

Now it hopes to do enough this fall to return in the spring and win a national title.

In the meantime, perhaps the whispers will cease.

Realize last season was a turning point

The Sooners have made a habit of reaching the NCAA postseason during the Sunny Golloway era, but hadn’t reached the CWS under his watch entering last season. That finally changed. OU put together a solid regular season campaign and hosted an NCAA regional before upsetting Virginia in the Charlottesville Super Regional to make its first CWS berth since 1995. OU played well in Omaha and finished the campaign with a 50-18 overall record. The Sooners took a huge step forward in a campaign that was expected to be a tough rebuilding process. Now they should relish being one of the hunted when spring arrives. OU must turns its CWS berth into long-term success on the national stage.

Round out the weekend rotation

The Sooners had a good weekend rotation down the stretch last season with Michael Rocha, Bobby Shore and Zach Neal leading the way. Rocha and Shore are back this fall and give them a solid one-two punch going into next season. However, they must find a way to replace Neal, who started 18 games last season. OU will look to JUCO transfer Burch Smith to fill the void. Burch has been 93-95 mph with his fastball so far this fall. He also has displayed a power breaking ball and a fantastic changeup. The Sooners are in business if Burch turns out the way Golloway believes he will in the spring.

Replace reliever Jeremy Erben

Oklahoma had a two-headed monster in the bullpen last season with Jeremy Erben and Ryan Duke leading the way. Duke is back this fall and again will serve as closer after tallying a 3.75 ERA and 12 saves in 36 innings last season. Erben, meanwhile, was drafted and signed this past summer after serving as one of the squad’s most reliable arms last season. OU replaces Erben with senior right-hander Tyson Seng, who spent the 2010 campaign with the Sooners basketball team. Seng has impressed the coaching staff this fall with a 89-91 mph fastball, a nasty slider and a fantastic changeup. It’ll be interesting to see how Seng’s repertoire evolves as the season nears.

Meet expectations at the plate

OU rose to the occasion at the plate down the stretch last season and again expects to have a solid lineup in the spring. The Sooners finished last season with a .307 batting average and welcome back seven of their top eight hitters including Garrett Buechele, Cameron Seitzer, Caleb Bushyhead, Chris Ellison, Max White, Cody Reine and Tyler Ogle. White was the only player from this group to finish ’10 with a batting average below .300. However, the Sooners fully expect him to establish more consistency next season. OU is in fantastic shape if its offense meets expectations the spring. It certainly looks good on paper.

Solidify the middle infield

The Sooners have some work to do to solidify the middle infield between now and February. OU welcomes back experienced shortstop Caleb Bushyhead, but he’s out the rest of the fall because of an injury. Bushyhead will be fine and ready to go in the spring. The second base situation is still fluid, though. The Sooners lost Danny Black to the draft this past summer and is looking at Max White and Evan Mistich as replacements. White batted .293 with 15 homers and 43 RBIs last season. He also ended the year with a .940 fielding percentage. White has impressed the coaches with his athleticism this fall. Mistich, meanwhile, is an offensive specialist that previously spent time at Tulane. OU has plenty of talent at this position, but still must figure out who will start. Chances are good it will be White.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Oct 16, 2010