The Longhorns’ journey to this year’s College World Series didn’t start on Valentine’s Day in California, when Texas opened its season against the California Golden Bears.
It didn’t start last fall, when the team was barred from its own clubhouse and forced to feel like visitors in their own ballpark as they went through exhaustive workouts and team bonding exercises.
No, the Longhorns’ surprising run to Omaha began last summer, when their two veteran leaders, Nathan Thornhill and Mark Payton, passed on the opportunity to go pro and elected to return to Austin for their senior season.
“Getting to the College World Series was one of our goals when we decided to come back together,” Payton said. “We’re not done with our job yet. We have a lot more work to do, but it feels good to know that we’re getting close to what we came back for.”
While Thornhill and Payton both attribute their return to a mutual desire to bring the Texas baseball program back to the national powerhouse it has long been known as, head coach Augie Garrido said it wasn’t that easy.
“It took four months of begging on my part,” Garrido said.
No matter how much pleading it might have taken, there’s no doubt Garrido’s efforts were worth it, given how much of an impact the two seniors have had on his ball club.
Thornhill, a Cedar Park native, has been Texas’ most efficient and dependable pitcher this season, taking the mound in several of the Longhorns’ most important contests. As the anchor of perhaps the best pitching staff Garrido has coached at Texas, Thornhill’s 8-2 record and 1.57 ERA entering the College World Series are an obvious explanation of why his manager gave him the ball in the opener.
Payton, who hails from Chicago, has meant just as much to the Longhorn lineup as Thornhill has to their pitching staff. The 5’8” spark plug has come up with countless clutch hits and is as sure-handed as they come in center field. His incomprehensible 101-game on-base streak finally came to an end in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to UC-Irvine in Omaha, but Payton’s consistent play has been vital to Texas’ success all season.
“[Payton’s] a very selfless person,” sophomore shortstop C.J Hinojosa said. “The word selfish is used a lot in baseball and this kid is the complete opposite of that. He is always looking out for the guy next to him. That’s part of what’s good because he is our senior leader along with Nate [Thornhill].”
While Thornhill and Payton’s respective contributions to the team’s success on the diamond can’t be overstated, it is their leadership off the field that has helped the younger players overcome the struggles of the last two seasons.
As two of only four players left from the 2011 team that made it to Omaha, Thornhill and Payton have worked all season to instill in their teammates an understanding of just how much effort it takes to get to that point.
Now that they’ve made it, the two veteran leaders have a simple message for their young teammates: Just play ball, relax and enjoy the experience
“The guys who haven’t been are just going to have to hop in and do what they’ve done to get us to this point,” Payton said. “You just have to jump in and play your game and have fun doing it. Obviously, you can’t take going to the College World Series for granted. You just have to go out and have fun doing it.
Now settled in at the College World Series, Thornhill and Payton have certainly had time to reflect on their final season wearing burnt orange. It’s been an incredible ride, but there is still work to be done.
“It is,” Thornhill said when asked if this NCAA Tournament run has been somewhat of a fairy tale ending. “Not yet though. Being [in Omaha] is one thing, but winning there is a whole other thing.”