A year ago, the Texas Longhorns were preparing to host the Rice Owls to open a 2022 season with outsized expectations even for a baseball program that fans like to refer to as the University of Texas at Omaha — it was national championship or bust.
And despite an 11-0 start and a No. 1 ranking early in the season, the Longhorns weren’t able to capitalize on those expectations in the face of a daunting schedule, the devastating injury to starting pitcher Tanner Witt, and a bullpen that started imploding in early March and never recovered. For all the promise, Texas went two and ‘cue in Omaha after getting outscored 17-5 and suffering the indignity of being eliminated by Texas A&M.
Despite finishing 14-16 in SEC play, it was Ole Miss peaking at the right time and taking home the school’s first national title.
In the aftermath of the disappointing finish for the Longhorns, volunteer assistant coach Troy Tulowitzki stepped back from his role and Pierce decided to part ways with longtime assistant Sean Allen while reassigning his other longtime assistant, Philip Miller, into a special assistant role, hitting a hard reset on a staff featuring two assistants who had accompanied him from Huntsville to New Orleans to Austin.
Pierce brought in former Baylor head coach Steve Rodriguez, hired San Jacinto pitching coach Woody Williams to handle his staff, and elevated Caleb Longley to volunteer assistant.
The staff changes mark a sharp turning point in Pierce’s tenure as he navigates a roster that lost its top six hitters, including consensus National Player of the Year Ivan Melendez, while also losing ace Pete Hansen and several other important arms.
A trip to Omaha remains the standard, as it is every year on the Forty Acres, but the Horns failing to make the preseason top 25 in D1 Baseball’s poll is an acknowledgement of that roster turnover and the most significant staff changes Pierce has ever made as a head coach.
More than Pierce’s legacy on the Forty Acres is on the line — if the staff changes don’t produce on-field results, especially improvements from a pitching staff that features plenty of pure stuff but didn’t exactly have a surfeit of command last season, Pierce could increasingly find himself facing questions about his job security.
After all, while the 2018 team overachieved in simply making the College World Series and the 2021 team proved that Pierce’s teams could compete in Omaha, there have also been the lows of the 2019 disaster. As for last season’s flameout on college baseball’s biggest stage? It was a result that somehow represented a disappointment compared to preseason expectations while overachieving compared to what the team proved it actually was following Witt’s injury and the bullpen implosion.
This year’s team doesn’t have the upside to provide much perspective about Pierce’s ability to get to Omaha and win, but it illustrate whether the staff reset is working. If the changes don’t pay clear dividends, Pierce will enter the 2024 season under heavy scrutiny and likely without the ability to hard reset his staff again if necessary for 2025.
Pierce has proven that he’s a good coach. He doesn’t need to be a great coach if he has the right assistants around him who can help build rosters with the talent necessary to win at a high level consistently.
Given that assessment of Pierce as a head coach, it’s worth laying out what success looks like this season when the typical standard of “Omaha or bust” is too blunt an object with so much turnover.
In the preseason poll, Texas was picked to finish fourth behind TCU, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech. The series against the Horned Frogs and Cowboys will both be on the road, increasing the level of difficulty, but those nine games will help determine whether the Horns can overachieve compared to expectations. The other five series are about whether Texas can match the preseason prognostications. Call anything worse than fourth a disappointment.
As a team, the loss of power means the Longhorns won’t be able to rely on the long ball and instead need to execute at the plate — taking a middle-of-the-field approach to find gap-to-gap power, stealing bases, executing bunts and hit and runs.
On an individual level, a handful of players can set the narrative.
The Longhorns need outfielder Dylan Campbell and shortstop Mitchell Daly to avoid the poor starts that plagued them last season. For Campbell to play like the future standout he appeared to be late in the year. For Daly to return to his freshman form by going back to his opposite-field approach. Freshmen third baseman Jalin Flores and first baseman Jared Thomas will unquestionably have their struggles adjusting to the college game, but need to leave the season showing some sustained glimpses of becoming future building blocks for the program in 2024 and 2025. Any development from players like potential starting second baseman Jack O’Dowd and utility player Peyton Powell would benefit the assessments of Pierce’s new assistants.
The pressure is most acute on Williams, who had an accomplished professional career and helped San Jac make the Junior College World Series five times, but doesn’t have experience at the D1 level since he was a two-way standout at Houston three and a half decades ago.
Consider right-hander Zane Morehouse the most important pupil for Williams as the prospective Sunday starter and an avatar for the “great stuff, poor command” vibe around a handful of pitchers on the staff, a group that also includes right-handers Travis Sthele and Lebarron Johnson. Along with right-hander Andre Duplantier, those are four key pitchers that Williams was brought in to develop.
From a scheduling standpoint, however, Pierce has clearly set the 2023 squad up for more success in the winning column.
If the expectations weren’t a heavy enough burden to bear for last year’s team, the extraordinarily ambitious schedule ably filled the void. Looking to ensure an unimpeachable resume and challenge the team, Pierce scheduled myriad road trips with brand building around the state a secondary goal. Within the first week of the season, the Longhorns traveled to Corpus Christi to face the Islanders for a two-game midweek matchup, followed by in-state road trips to Huntsville, San Marcos, and the Rio Grande Valley.
But no scheduling decision ultimately loomed larger than Pierce’s decision to have the team spend spring break in South Carolina with a weekend series against South Carolina followed by matchups against College of Charleston and The Citadel. Texas dropped the series in Columbia days after the home loss to Texas State, then got beat by College of Charleston. After that grueling week on the road, the Longhorns lost the team’s early-season momentum and never truly recovered as the bullpen fell into disarray.
The combination of this year’s roster construction and any lessons that Pierce learned from overestimating the 2022 team’s ability to handle the adversity engendered by all that time away from the Disch resulted in a significantly denuded road schedule.
Gone are the midweek road trips and the spring break excursion — besides traveling to Arlington for the College Baseball Showdown and a weekend trip to face a Cal State Fullerton program that is a shell of its former self, Texas doesn’t have a midweek road game until traveling to College Station in late March and will play all five games during spring break at home as part of a 14-game homestand between the trip to California and the journey east to Aggieland. Other non-conference opponents include Indiana, Manhattan, North Dakota State, and New Orleans in addition to a late-season series against San Jose State prior to the final conference series. The Longhorns leave the state only three times all season.
So while there are concerns about the type of NCAA Tournament resume Texas can put together given the schedule, there are still five games against SEC opponents in addition to conference play, affording the Longhorns enough opportunities to host a regional by avoiding bad losses and meeting expectations in conference play.
Like the 2008 football season, the 2021 team was fun to watch and played with a level of joy and freedom that wasn’t there for the expectation-filled 2009 football season or the 2022 baseball team.
So the hope is that the 2023 Longhorns can truly enjoy the experience in a way that last year’s group simply could not. The question, then, is whether Pierce will have his own version of 5-7 or prove that the roster additions and the bold changes he made to his staff were the right ones.