Oklahoma’s Men’s College World Series win is a result of a former Yankee coach’s return home to his alma mater

OMAHA, Neb. — The ball is out of the glove of third baseman. John Spikerman isn't aware of this because he's sprinting from first to third base. He's also been tagged for a right-field rocket throw. He doesn't realize he's about be part of a viral seamhead video.

Spikerman, a freshman on the Oklahoma baseball team is playing in front 25,000 people at this year's Men's College World Series. Spikerman didn't start the game until just before Easter. A play like this can be collateral damage if you are part of an offense with “chaos” as its theme.

The ball bounces off Jack Brannigan, Notre Dame's third baseman, and Spikerman flies off the bag as he thinks he's out. Brannigan grabs the ball and tags him casually on the back.

Spikerman meets Reggie Willits (assistant coach), in the dugout. Willits was, one year ago, the New York Yankees' first base coach.

Willits says to Willits, “I love your aggression.”

Coming home

Oklahoma is just one win away from the MCWS Finals. The Sooners will play Arkansas Wednesday (2 p.m.). ET, ESPN. The team was returning from practice Tuesday when they stopped at the hill where Rosenblatt Stadium used to be. It was at the ‘Blatt that Oklahoma won its last national championship. It was 1994.

Willits was unable to attend Tuesday's high school senior graduation, so he stayed behind to help Jaxon in the batting boxes.

Willits saw Jaxon play before he left the Yankees last fall to become a volunteer assistant coaching coach at his alma mater.

Jaxon stated, “It's an adjustment.” It's a welcome adjustment. My mom seems more relaxed now, I'd say. She isn't as stressed and uptight now.”

Reggie was in an apartment outside New York City. Amber Willits, the family's cattle ranch owner in Fort Cobb Oklahoma, was managing the ranch and shuffled their boys (they have 3). Reggie said, “I married an angel.”

In sixth grade, he met and married his wife in Fort Cobb (population 634). They both went to OU together. The Angels drafted Willits in the seventh round of 2003. In that year, they made plans to build Fort Cobb's 3,000-square-foot house. Indoor batting cage was the first thing to be built. The New York Times published a story about them in 2007. They lived in an indoor cage together with Jaxon during Willits' rookie year.

Willits was fifth in the American League Rookies of the Year voting. He stole 27 bases and hit.293 that year with 69 walks. After an Achilles' injury, Willits retired and coached high-school baseball at Binger Oney in Oklahoma.

He was hired by the Yankees in 2015 to be their outfield coordinator and baserunning coordinator.

Although he loved his job with the Yankees, he hated the stress it placed on Amber. He longed for more time with his loved ones. Amber would take notes of every at-bat and text them to their sons. He claimed that they “lived and died” because of those messages.

He was in an apartment in Dobbs Ferry, New York. Although he was not comfortable living there, some OU alums knew Willits and inquired about Willits' availability. They knew he was desperate to return to Oklahoma.

Willits stated, “It's my home.” “I was born there, and I was raised there. That's where my children were raised.

“It is something that we don’t take for granted and we love living it.”

Game changer

The Oklahoma Sooners were 14-4. They had big postseason plans for 2020, when COVID-19 struck.

Clay Van Hook and Clay Overcash, assistant coaches, sat down in idle time to decide that the team needed more athleticism so it could place more pressure on the defenses. Their 2022 freshman class featured three players who would play a major role in their MCWS run, Spikerman and Jackson Nicklaus.

Nicklaus' grand slam powered the Sooners in a rout over Texas A&M in the MCWS, and Spikerman has stolen 12 bases in 32 games. Six players from the Sooners have swiped double-digit bases. They're not small-ball hitters.

Peyton Graham, a Sophomore at OU is the first to hit 20 home runs in a season and steal 30 bases.

Johnson stated that Johnson believes it puts pressure on pitchers. Johnson stated that if you can pressure the pitcher, it helps him raise the ball, get behind in counts, get in advantage counts and other such things.

“And getting Reggie this summer, one the most respected baserunning coaches in the world, really got the offense going. It's easy to do what I do. I go to practice, then go down to the tunnel to go straight to the bullpen. I have enough trouble teaching them how to throw strikes. It adds the fun to it, I believe. The whole coaching team works together to help kids learn how to play their particular type of baseball.

Building trust

Willits had one goal upon arriving in Oklahoma: To gain the trust of his fellow players. He stated that this is not a given. It's earned through relationships.

Trust is required to steal bases or lay down bunts.

Willits stated, “The number one thing you can give a person to help them become the best player they can be is the freedom of failure.” “We do different things and put on signs to make them successful. We give them the freedom to fail. If they make an aggressive mistake or fail, they won't get in trouble. It will be the reverse.

“If you make any mistake, whether it's passive or fearful, you'll never hear from us.”

Johnson calls his team the “Davids of college baseball” and he likes to refer to them as such. Teams such as Texas, Florida and Texas A&M — teams Oklahoma has beaten over the past month — are the “Goliaths.” The Sooners finished April at 18-12, but they were still working on their lineup. They were not expected to perform well in the postseason but they went on the road and beat Florida in regionals.

Tanner Tredaway, Sooners outfielder said that there has been a lot of trust in the team over the last three weeks. It has been chaos.

Tredaway stated, “When we were able have the success that was ours and see that what we were doing was succeeding,” Tredaway added, “it gave me great comfort to know it would work against anyone.”

“I can only say that this team is on a mission. It's something I have said a thousand times, but it's still true. We're trying to make an impact. That was what we tried in the regional and supers. We want it to happen here in Omaha.

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