CORVALLIS – At the conclusion of an extensive stretching routine on a chilly Tuesday afternoon, the Oregon State baseball team gathered in a circle and broke the huddle on a now-familiar chant.

“Omaha on three.”

“One, two, three. Omaha!”

The new routine has become a centerpiece since the fall, when OSU gathered as a team for the first time since narrowly missing the program’s first NCAA Tournament since 2008.

Like the group this season, last year’s squad started as a consensus top 10 team. But the Beavers finished 35-19 after stumbling midway through the season. They rebounded to win five of their final six games and appeared destined for an at-large bid before learning on Selection Monday the tournament committee overlooked them by the narrowest of margins.

The committee’s decision continues to rankle Pat Casey, who enters his 23rd season as Oregon State coach after brushing back a summer pursuit by the University of Texas and sitting through his longest offseason in nearly a decade.

“I can tell you that there’s years when the season’s over that you’re excited about getting away from it a little bit and last year was not one of those years,” Casey said. “It felt like we needed to play again. It’s kind of been something that’s been sitting with me since the day that we found out that we weren’t getting in.”

If the bitter taste has given Casey an added edge entering the 2017 season, he hopes it will do the same for his players. The task will require a delectate balancing act: maintaining the mindset from eight months ago and passing it on to newcomers, while not dwelling on the absence.

And so out of the frustration of last May came the new goal embodied in the break of each team huddle – return to Omaha for the College World Series and be the last team standing for the first time since 2007.

“Maybe in a weird way it was good for us because everyone has a chip on their shoulders now,” sophomore infielder and team co-captain Nick Madrigal said. “We’re kind of out to prove something this year it feels like.”

Madrigal returns as perhaps the most hyped player to an experienced group that only lost two everyday players (catcher Logan Ice and shortstop Trever Morrison) and one consistent pitcher (starting right-hander Travis Eckert). The Pac-12 freshman of the year hit Betorder .333 last season as a second baseman and is cleared to play after undergoing offseason surgery to repair a torn left labrum.

Madrigal is now engaged in a competition to replace Morrison at shortstop with returning sophomore third baseman Cadyn Grenier, who struggled at the plate last season but arrived with Madrigal as one of OSU’s most highly touted recruits.

“It’s a duel,” junior Christian Donahue said. “They don’t really miss any groundballs ever. They’re just competing out there, man. It’s a lot of fun to watch them go at it.”

The Beavers return first baseman and power hitter K.J. Harrison, who has also taken offseason reps at catcher to replace Ice, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year. Freshman Adley Rutschman and junior Michael Gretler have gotten a majority of offseason recognition from Casey for their work behind the plate, with Rutschman – also a kicker on the football team – earning perhaps the highest praise.

“Rutschman may have as good an arm as anybody we’ve ever had back there,” Casey said.

The outfield will feature depth, experience and an expected boost with the return of redshirt sophomore Elliott Cary, who missed last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery after starting 24 games and hitting .258 as a freshman. Players in the mix include sophomores Trevor Larnach and Steven Kwan, redshirt junior Jack Anderson and senior Kyle Nobach.

Donahue, who hit .339 as the Beavers’ primary starter in left field, has been taking reps both in the infield and outfield. Donahue was the starting second baseman as a freshman before the addition of Madrigal and Grenier last season led to a switch.

The competition for playing time is expected to be strong throughout the roster, as Casey noted there were only three players he knew would start when OSU begins the season on Feb. 17 against Duke in Surprise, Arizona. Despite the ongoing position battles, multiple players highlighted the closeness throughout the roster.

“I don’t think I’ve been part of a stronger team chemistry-wise,” Donahue said.

Open competition will also be a feature in the rotation.

Drew Rasmussen, the No. 1 starter to open last year, still hopes to pitch this season but is without a timetable for his return after Tommy John surgery ended his sophomore year following six starts.

Junior lefty Luke Heimlich, sophomore righty Bryce Fehmel and redshirt junior righty Jake Thompson all return with starting experience last season. Redshirt sophomore righty Sam Tweedt, who was expected to be part of the 2016 rotation before undergoing Tommy John surgery, is back after a year off.

Freshmen Grant Gambrell, Dakota Donovan, Brandon Eisert and Jake Mullholland are among potential early contributors, while senior Max Engelbrekt, junior Mitch Hickey and sophomore Jordan Britton all return with significant bullpen experience.

“We got power arms. We got guys to get lefties out, guys to sprinkle in sliders to righties. We got plenty of starters,” Heimlich said. “We’ll be pretty deep.”

With depth and talent throughout the roster, the pieces appear in place for Oregon State’s first trip to Omaha in four years. And given how last season ended, lack of motivation is not expected to be a factor, even for the players who were not in the room with the Beavers to watch how the tournament selection unfolded.

“You can tell by every day at practice that we didn’t make it,” Rutschman said. “It hurts everyone and it just motivates us. It’s contagious.”

— Danny Moran


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