Passion carries Wieligman, Cowgirls
With fans eager to see the home team return to the Women's College World Series for the first time since 1998, it took all of 20 minutes to sell out Cowgirl Stadium for this weekend's super regional against Houston.
Oklahoma State wasn't supposed to be here, literally or figuratively, not after it was left unseeded in the field of 64 and shipped more than 800 miles away to the Knoxville Regional.
One of the toughest regionals, the site featured Tennessee, winner of the SEC tournament and Georgia Tech, winner of the ACC regular-season title. But three wins there, including two against the Lady Vols, and a similar regional upset from Houston meant that not only were the Cowgirls in a super regional, they would host it.
This is the first team comprised entirely of fifth-year coach Rich Wieligman's recruits, and it's looking to put a stamp on the rebuilding process. Rebuilding might not be enough for the folks in Stillwater. With Hall of Fame Stadium, home of the World Series, 60 miles away in Oklahoma City, Cowgirl fans think a berth is as close as it's been in a long time.
But if you think all of that brings pressure, try being the guy who followed Cecil Fielder in Japan.
"I got over there and then they started expecting me to hit the ball like him," Wieligman chuckled. "I'm like, 'If I hit the ball like him, I'd have been in the major leagues over there [in the United States].'"
That was 1990, the year Fielder hit 51 home runs for the Detroit Tigers after starring in a one-year stint with the Hanshin Tigers of Nippon Professional Baseball. A year earlier, Wieligman was a 26-year-old first baseman and outfielder. In 1989, he hit .286 and drove in 57 runs for the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, the top farm team for the Tigers. Wieligman was not retained by the club and his desire to keep playing found him essentially swapping placing, and Tigers, with Fielder.
It turned out to be Wieligman's last year of pro ball, but it was an experience he still says he wouldn't trade, in part because of what it showed him about what he had at home.
"The baseball culture was tough," Wieligman said. "They're so regimented, and they have to practice eight hours a day and they have to practice before a game. Things like that, you know, we weren't accustomed to."
It's easier than you might think to connect the dots between a player traveling across an ocean for one more shot and a coach rebuilding a program to the point that it's the hottest ticket in town over Memorial Day weekend.
After returning to the United States, Wieligman filled his craving for competition by playing fast-pitch softball. That, eventually led to a coaching position with Baylor in 1999, Texas Tech two years later and finally Texas A&M in 2003, where he emerged as one of the college game's up-and-coming hitting gurus.
After the 2006 season, he accepted the head coaching position at Oklahoma State, then coming off a program-worst 21-29 season and six of eight seasons out of the NCAA tournament.
Jami Lobpries was a raw prospect from outside the normal pipelines when she was recruited to Texas A&M by Wieligman.
She emerged as a regular starter by her sophomore season, and by the time she was a senior, she posted a .381 on-base percentage and stole 14 bases, not to mention played some of the best outfield defense in the Big 12 for a team that advanced to the championship series against Arizona State. Wieligman was in Stillwater by then, but his work lingered.
"He's very, very technical," said Lobpries, now playing professionally in National Pro Fastpitch, of her old coach's hitting instruction. "I needed that because I had no idea what I was doing. And so he just taught me so much of the 'why' and 'how' you do things. He was great, too, because he had a family they were always out there at the park, traveled with us and everything. So when he left, it was definitely, definitely really sad."
That's the thing about Wieligman. For all his technical acumen -- and as much as the dark sunglasses and salt-and-pepper goatee make him look like the quintessential movie-villain coach -- people who talk about him keep coming back to things beyond softball. They start talking hitting but soon drift into stories about his family or about airport banter or practice amusement. They don't play for Wieligman so much as experience him.
"He still needs to race me," Oklahoma State senior Mariah Gearhart noted with some consternation. "He still says that he's faster than me, but we're going to race before I leave."
A California kid who hadn't even met him until she showed up for an unofficial visit at Oklahoma State, Gearhart became arguably the cornerstone of Wieligman's first recruiting class after watching him interact with her younger sister, rather than tout the merits of the program or her place in it.
If she was going to go to school that far away from home, she reasoned, she wanted to play for someone who didn't see his job ending at the edge of the grass. Four years later she talks to a lot of friends from home who played in college, the same friends she fell in love with softball playing alongside, and can't believe how many of them express relief at being done with the grind the game had become.
To someone like Wieligman who chased a game as long as he could, and felt that grind set in in a place with a 14-hour time difference from home, wanting it to end could be a fate worse than losing.
"To me, this game is a lot about passion. You've got to love the game to play it, and play it hard," Wieligman said. "And I want our kids to get done with their four years and want to still come back for more and miss it. I don't want kids that can't wait to get away during their fourth year.
"And that, to me, means I'm developing their passion and their love of the game so they'll go out when they get done playing and want to coach and develop somebody else's passion."
This is not to suggest, as Gearhart answered questions while she sat in a cold tub after a morning workout, that pursuing that passion doesn't sometimes leave players grumbling after a 5:30 a.m. practice.
"It's a very love-hate relationship," Gearhart said. "Because he's our head coach he has to be the one we love at times, when he rewards us with dessert for winning a game, but he's also got to be the one we absolutely hate because he has to be the one to punish us. I think that's the hardest thing for him, because he genuinely cares about all 17 of us. He cares about all the way down to our managers who help us with everything."
For a team two wins away from the World Series that was ranked in the Top 25 all season, Gearhart said Wieligman has come down hard more often this season than in past seasons. Perhaps because he finally felt he could.
"I think that's what has made a huge difference; he hasn't been afraid to put his foot down with us," Gearhart said. "When he sees even a little slight indication of us slacking off or getting too cocky, he puts his foot down. He may get some backlash from us and some not-very-good looks, but he's done a great job of not worrying about that and knowing that's his job as our head coach to keep this team on the right path."
A big guy with the firm handshake and a long drawl that turns his former employer into "Dee-troit," Wieligman will tell you with an almost conspiratorial grin that he has it pretty good these days.
It may just be that he's better than a lot of coaches at hiding the stress that comes from a profession where your job review is posted in the win-loss column. Or maybe chasing something from the minor league buses all the way to Japan really can make some people appreciate what's around them when they stop.
Not long after Wieligman took the job at Oklahoma State, Lobpries and three Texas A&M teammates made a road trip to Stillwater to visit with their former coach and his family, where they saw the jersey from Japan among his memorabilia. Asked what it was about him that would inspire players no longer under his charge to make that drive, she answered in the same way someone might if asked why they drove home for Thanksgiving.
"He's Coach Wigs," Lobpries said. "We loved him."
It's not a bad start if you want to explain why Stillwater will turn out in force to see whether the Cowgirls can earn the chance to play a few more games.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
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