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Balanced roster with returning talent has Texas baseball looking promising

A year after David Pierce managed to reload instead of rebuild, the Longhorns enter the season with the potential to once again make a run to Omaha.

Syndication: Austin American-Statesman Aaron E. Martinez/American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

A fly ball lost in the lights of Sunken Diamond in the Palo Alto Super Regional last year ended arguably the most important season with the Texas Longhorns for head coach David Pierce on the precipice of a trip to the College World Series.

What shouldn’t be lost is how close the Longhorns were to a record 39th journey to Omaha despite facing decreased expectations following Pierce’s decision to retool his coaching staff during the 2022 offseason in the wake of a disappointing finish to a season that started with the lofty dreams of winning the program’s seventh national championship.

At Texas, those hopes should exist every season, and while the 2024 Longhorns are picked to finish second in the Big 12 and rank No. 16 nationally in D1Baseball’s preseason poll, the baseline standard of competing for a trip to Omaha is well within this team’s potential ahead of Friday’s season opener against San Diego at UFCU Disch-Falk Field.

Even so, for the fourth time in last five offseasons, Pierce revamped his coaching staff after the loss to Stanford, dismissing pitching coach Woody Williams after one season to take over that role himself, moving Philip Miller back into an on-field role, and bringing Troy Tulowitzki into the program once again as the Director of Player Development.

The most significant change is Pierce becoming the pitching coach, a position that he held previously at Rice under Wayne Graham through his first head coaching jobs at Sam Houston and Tulane.

“I’m really comfortable doing it, I like doing it, but I still have the ability with great personnel around me to still be involved in the team,” said Pierce in an appearance on Texas Sports Unfiltered. “I don’t ever want to be the pitching coach only as the head coach — I want to maintain that title as the head coach and be able to really coordinate the team.”

For Pierce, finding the right personnel around him has been difficult over the last several years after a remarkable stretch of staff stability through his first eight years as a head coach. After dismissing volunteer assistant Phil Haig in 2019 to bring on Tulowitzki, Pierce moved longtime assistant Sean Allen into the pitching coach role before firing Allen after the 2022 season and hiring Williams, who only lasted one season on the Forty Acres in his first job at the Division I level.

“It can be combative at times just because I’m in the middle of it and I’ve done it for a long time, so I kind of know what I want to see and what to expect,” said Pierce in January.

Supporting Pierce on the analytic and logistical side is Chris Gordon, a former pitching coach at Duke who now holds the title of Hitting and Pitching Development Coordinator.

“Chris Gordon, who is really good at the analytics and very good with the day-to-day setup and prep, I couldn’t do it without him. I couldn’t do it without somebody that can go in and kind of set the stage and have all the prep done and then I can coach,” said Pierce.

On the roster, stability should benefit the Longhorns — the 2023 team lost eight players to the 2022 MLB Draft, including star first baseman Ivan Melendez and No. 1 starter Pete Hansen, but the 2023 draft was arguably more fortuitous for Texas than any others in the last 20 years thanks to the returns of standout pitchers Tanner Witt and Lebarron Johnson Jr. and key contributors Porter Brown, Jack O’Dowd, and Peyton Powell.

“We had five guys that we got back that we didn’t expect to get back,” said Pierce in an appearance on On Texas Football.

Just as importantly, the signing class only lost pitcher Travis Sykora, long considered a virtual lock to sign as a high draft pick — getting outfielder Will Gasparino, a top-100 prospect, and first baseman Casey Borba on campus were significant developments for Pierce’s program.

Texas did suffer some attrition through the transfer portal, most notably losing starting shortstop Mitchell Daly to Kentucky after the Alabama native struggled the last two seasons in failing to capitalize on an extremely promising freshman season, but the other departures were from pitching depth in contrast to the 2022 offseason when first baseman Gavin Kash transferred to Texas Tech and turned into a star for the Red Raiders, former closer Aaron Nixon left for Mississippi State, and talented pitcher Josh Stewart departed for Texas A&M.

With the MLB Draft working out in favor of Texas, the staff was able to largely add depth through the portal instead of trying to find starters, although two preseason losses hurt those efforts — Notre Dame transfer left-hander Will Mercer is out for the season due to injury and Duke transfer first baseman Luke Storm is stepping away from baseball for personal reasons. Additions to watch include Penn transfer outfielder Seth Werchan, San Diego and Chabot College transfer outfielder Casey Cummings, Blinn transfer pitcher Gage Boehm, and LSU and McLennan College transfer pitcher Grant Fontenot.

Following last season’s major reload, the 2024 Texas roster features a more ideal blend of returning players and talented newcomers.

“I think we have such a good balance of older leaders with young talent, and then created some depth with that,” said Pierce.

The returnees help carry over the program’s culture and an identity that formed late last season when a sweep of West Virginia to close the regular season split the Big 12 title and set the stage for a convincing performance in the Coral Gables Regional and three hard-fought games in Palo Alto as the group emerged from the considerable shadow of the 2021 and 2022 teams.

“You could see them kind of take the identity of who they are now as a team and that’s what’s exciting when you’re at a place like Texas where everybody knows that there’s that chance, there’s that real aspiration of playing for a national championship and it’s pretty evident through our building of, that’s the goal, that’s the plan, and so that’s the standard,” said Pierce.

But where last year’s team relied on young players at several positions and as depth while struggling to establish roles in the starting rotation and bullpen, the growing pains suffered in 2023 combined with the favorable MLB Draft results have the Longhorns better positioned as a roster, according to Pierce.

“There’s a lot of good pieces, I think — we have the ability to be a complete team.”