Departing Vets Leave Mark On TCU

College World Series


OMAHA — TCU entered the 2017 season wearing a giant bull’s eye. The Horned Frogs were the consensus preseason No. 1 team in college baseball, a distinction that carries a lot of pressure with it.

And this group of Horned Frogs handled that burden with aplomb — but that shouldn’t be a surprise. These players have proven themselves over and over again in one high-pressure situation after another over the last four seasons — each of which ended with a trip to Omaha.

For the third straight year, TCU’s season came to a close in the national semifinals, as the Frogs were eliminated from the 2017 CWS by Florida on Saturday, 3-0.

So even though the preseason No. 1 team didn’t finish as the postseason No. 1 team, the Frogs lived up to their lofty billing. They won 50 games, earned a national seed and came within one victory of a trip to the Finals, even after losing their most talented hitter, slugger Luken Baker, to an injury in the second half. They would have been a worthy champion — but they were beaten by another worthy champion in preseason No. 2 Florida, whose first-round ace Alex Faedo overwhelmed the Frogs in both of their Omaha defeats.

“I love our team, but you have to play the best,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “You  have to play better than the other team. And Oregon State got outplayed the last couple of days, and TCU got outplayed today. We didn’t get out-efforted. We tried hard. I felt good about our attitude and our effort, but Florida played better.”

There’s really no bigger picture takeaway here — these two national semifinal matchups were battles between marquee teams. Both matchups were pushed to “if-necessary” games. Somebody had to lose them both. All the losers can do is tip their caps to the winners.

TCU’s dugout copes with the end of the line (Eric Sorenson)

And TCU has an awful lot to be proud of.

“Since I’ve been at TCU, the culture is we fight and we scratch, no matter what the situation is,” said junior first baseman Connor Wanhanen, who figures to be back for his senior year in 2018. “My first year, coming back from 8-1 in the eighth inning against NC State (in the regional final), that’s just what we do. It’s in the culture that Coach Schloss ingrains in all of us.

“But there were a lot of expectations at the beginning of the year, and I think we handled it the right way. And obviously in any season, we handled the ebbs and flows, and there were ups and downs, and losing Luken and the other injuries in there — just a testament to the TCU program that we always found a way to do what we needed to do to get to this spot.”

This TCU roster is loaded with genuine, likable players who go about their business with class, like Wanhanen. The Frogs will sure miss juniors Evan Skoug and Austen Wade, who were both drafted in the top 10 rounds and figure to head to pro ball now. Their leadership was evident here in Omaha, and they were also the team’s most dangerous hitters.

Naturally the Frogs will also miss seniors Brian Howard, Elliott Barzilli, Ryan Merrill, Cam Warner, Mitchell Traver and Nolan Brown. Howard and Traver were around for all four Omaha runs, and they played huge parts in each of the last two, as did former transfers Barzilli, Merrill, Warner and Brown. Most of those guys didn’t plaster their names all over the TCU record book with gaudy statistical performances. They just clicked as a group, and they knew how to win — something they did a whole lot.

“It’s a super tough group to lose because you have a combination of some drafted players that most likely sign in Wade and Skoug, and then you have some guys that are seniors that were drafted last year that could have signed, whether they were drafted or not,” Schlossnagle said. “Had they said the right thing, they could have come back. So all that speaks to their love for TCU and their love for our program and our fans and our love for them.

“And it’s a tough group to lose. But we’ve lost players before. And I think what stays true is what they talked about, the culture of a program, our great coaching staff, our awesome administration. It’s not like you plug and play. I mean, we have work to do. That’s what makes leaving here so hard. Because we’ll get on the plane tomorrow and we’ll land and there’s games being played on our field. We’ll start sitting out there and watching them to find the next bunch to get us back here. It’s a grind every single day just to have this awesome life experience, and I’m incredibly grateful to this entire bunch.”

Hopefully TCU fans appreciate how rare this group’s achievement was. Only two other teams have made four straight trips to Omaha during the 64-team era, which began in 1999. And college baseball is more competitive now than ever before — parity is a real thing. This group of Frogs should be celebrated forever in Fort Worth.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’ve gotten to do it three times now,” Wanhanen said, rather poetically. “I never take that for granted, and on days where we’ll joke about going to Omaha again, we slap each other, because it’s so hard to get here. And just this group of guys is so special. Most of us have been together for two, three, four years. And we’re so thankful to be here and obviously we’d love to keep playing. But it’s an incredible experience coming here every single year, and I’m praying we get a chance to come back again.”

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