At Men’s College World Series, Oklahoma making the most of former Yankee coach’s return to alma mater

OMAHA, Neb. — The ball has popped out of the third baseman’s glove. John Spikerman doesn’t know this, because he’s audaciously sprinted from first base to third, and he’s just been tagged after a rocket throw from right field. He doesn’t know he’s about to be part of a seamhead viral video.

Spikerman is a freshman for the Oklahoma baseball team, and he’s playing in front of 25,000 people at the Men’s College World Series. Up until around Easter, he wasn’t even starting. But when you’re part of an offense that has “chaos” as its adopted theme, a play like this is collateral damage.

The ball pops out of Notre Dame third baseman Jack Brannigan’s glove, bounces off the third base coach and Spikerman drifts off the bag because he believes he’s out. Brannigan retrieves the ball and casually tags him on the back.

Spikerman finds assistant coach Reggie Willits, who a year ago was the first base coach for the New York Yankees, in the dugout.

“I love your aggression,” Willits tells him.

Coming home

Oklahoma is one victory away from the MCWS finals — the Sooners play Arkansas Wednesday in a semifinal (2 p.m. ET, ESPN) — and on the way back from practice Tuesday, the team stopped at the hill where Rosenblatt Stadium, the old championship venue, used to stand. The last time Oklahoma won a national championship, it was held at the ‘Blatt. It was 1994.

Willits stayed behind Tuesday afternoon to work in the batting cages with his oldest son, Jaxon, a senior in high school.

Before last fall, when Willits left the Yankees to become a volunteer assistant coach at his alma mater, he saw Jaxon, an incoming senior, play three or four times.

“It’s an adjustment,” Jaxon said. “It’s a welcome adjustment. I would say my mom is more relaxed now. She’s not as uptight and stressed all the time.”

While Reggie was living in an apartment outside of New York City, Amber Willits was running the family’s cattle ranch in Fort Cobb, Oklahoma, and shuffling their boys (they have three) around to baseball tournaments. “I married a saint,” Reggie said.

He met his wife in Fort Cobb, population 634, in sixth grade. They went to OU together. Willits was drafted by the Angels in the seventh round in 2003, and that year the couple made plans to build a 3,000-square foot house in Fort Cobb. The first thing that was built was the indoor batting cage. The New York Times did a story on them in 2007 when, during Willits’ rookie years, they lived in the indoor cage with Jaxon in the offseason while the rest of the house was being built.

Willits finished fifth in the 2007 American League Rookie of the Year voting. He stole 27 bases that year, and hit .293 with 69 walks and 83 strikeouts. Willits retired in 2011 after an Achilles’ injury, and coached high school baseball at Binger-Oney in Oklahoma.

In 2015, the Yankees hired him as their outfield and baserunning coordinator.

He loved working for the Yankees, but hated the strain it put on Amber. And he yearned for more time with his family. Amber would record every one of their sons’ at-bats and text them to him, and he said he “lived and died” on those messages.

He was living in an apartment in Dobbs Ferry, New York — he wasn’t comfortable living in the city — when some OU alums who knew Willits inquired about his availability. They knew he was itching to get back to Oklahoma.

“It’s home,” Willits said. “I was born there, I was raised there and that’s where we wanted to raise our kids.

“It’s something that we don’t take for granted, and we love living there.”

Game changer

The Oklahoma Sooners were 14-4 and had big postseason plans in 2020 when COVID-19 hit, and the season was canceled.

Coach Skip Johnson and assistant coaches Clay Overcash and Clay Van Hook sat down during the idle time and decided that the team needed to get more athletic so it could put more pressure on defenses. Their 2022 freshman class included three players who’d figure heavily into their MCWS run — Spikerman, second baseman Jackson Nicklaus and third baseman Wallace Clark.

Nicklaus’ grand slam powered the Sooners in a rout over Texas A&M in the MCWS, and Spikerman has stolen 12 bases in 32 games. The Sooners have six players who’ve swiped double-digit bases, and they’re not just small-ball hitters.

Sophomore Peyton Graham is the first OU player to hit 20 home runs and steal 30 bases in a season.

“I think it puts pressure on the pitcher,” Johnson said. “If you can put pressure on the pitcher, it helps him elevate the ball at times, get behind in counts, get into advantage counts and stuff like that.

“And getting Reggie this year, one of the best baserunning coaches around, really started the offense. The good thing about what I do is I just go to practice, go down to the tunnel and go straight to the bullpen because I have hard enough time teaching them how to throw strikes. So I think it puts the fun in it. And our whole coaching staff feeds off each other of trying to teach kids how to play baseball, our type of baseball and our identity, being aggressive.”

Building trust

The first thing Willits wanted to do when he got to Oklahoma was the first thing he did in New York: He wanted to gain the players’ trust. He said that’s never a given; it’s earned through relationships.

Stealing bases, and even laying down bunts, requires trust.

“The number one thing I think you can give a player to make them maximize who they can be as a player is the freedom to fail,” Willits said. “We put on signs and do different things, hopefully to put them in good positions to be successful at what they do. The truth is, the number one thing we give them is freedom to fail. If they fail and it’s an aggressive mistake, that’s not something that they’re going to be in trouble for. It’s going to be the opposite.

“If you make a mistake and it’s a passive mistake, or a fearful-type mistake of being afraid to fail, then that’s the only time you’re really going to hear anything from us.”

Johnson likes to call his team the “Davids” of college baseball. Teams such as Texas, Florida and Texas A&M — teams Oklahoma has beaten over the past month — are the “Goliaths.” The Sooners were 18-12 in April, but were still tinkering with their lineup. They weren’t expected to do much in the postseason, but went on the road and stunned Florida in regionals, then beat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

Sooners outfielder Tanner Tredaway said the trust has been evident in the past three weeks. So has the chaos.

“When we were able to have the success that we had and see what we were doing was working,” Tredaway said, “it gave us a great comfort to know that it would work against anybody.

“The biggest thing I could say is that this team’s on a mission. And I’ve said it a thousand times before, but we’re trying to make a statement. We tried doing that in the regional and the supers, and we want to do it here in Omaha.”

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