Story by Will Carter / Sports Editor
Posted at the entrance of every roller coaster is a warning sign that lists situations where a person shouldn’t ride it. Usually it says something along the lines of, “you should not ride this roller coaster if you have a heart condition or high blood pressure, are pregnant or expecting, or experience dizziness or motion sickness.” The only reason I am familiar with these signs is because I have been on a large number of roller coasters in my life.
As the 2022 college baseball season progresses, I am beginning to believe one of those warning signs should be placed outside of Reese Smith Jr. Field to caution fans that they’re buying a ticket to the roller coaster that is Middle Tennessee Baseball.
(Please bear with me because I wrote this in the most positive way possible.)
Before this season started, the main goal for the Blue Raiders was to play well enough to compete in the Conference USA tournament and beyond that in the College World Series. Every arrow pointed in that direction including key veterans returning to lead the talented group of newcomers. That goal seemed grim when the Blue Raiders started the season with a 4-9 record that includes a shutout loss to Lipscomb University in the home opener.
Some people expected the Blue Raiders to underperform this season, and they definitely didn’t predict them to upset the Auburn Tigers in a three-game road series.
“I think we got picked tenth or eleventh out of twelve teams (in Conference USA),” Blue Raiders head coach Jim Toman siad. “That didn’t sit too well with them. We have a little ax to grind here and there and maybe a chip on our shoulder. They’re playing hard and taking pride in winning ball games, and that’s not an easy thing to do because Conference USA is a very good league.”
With the seventh ranked conference in the country in terms of RPI, it isn’t easy to win baseball games in Conference USA. Currently, Middle Tennessee is fifth in the conference standings with a 12-9 record and a lot of baseball left to play.
A large part of their success can be attributed to the obvious team chemistry the Blue Raiders’ squad possesses. Their mantra, “pass the bat,” proves that even more.
“We’ve been able to really trust each other this year,” veteran shortstop Fausto Lopez said. “The whole motto this year has been passing the stick to the next person to see what they can do. Nobody has to play the hero.”
Standout newcomer, Jackson Galloway, agreed with Lopez’s sentiment and added that this type of team is rare.
“We all have each other’s backs, so it’s been a good time,” Galloway said. “We have that team camaraderie that you don’t normally have all the time. With a closer team like that, everything else just goes hand-in-hand with it.”
Trusting that your teammate will pick you up when you need a boost. Trusting that when you aren’t playing your best, the player next to you will play harder. All of that goes a long way when you play on a team. If a team has that and a positive outlook, it’s hard to break them down.
The Blue Raiders check every box.
“Having that mentality can take you a long way, especially in this sport,” Galloway said. “If you have that dog mentality that you’re not playing for yourself but for the whole team – that takes you a long way. That’s what wins you ballgames. If the whole team is clicking, then no one can stop us.”
But that mentality doesn’t just start on a whim. It starts off the field by building bonds and forming relationships with each other that translate to success on the field. With a healthy mix of veterans and new faces, it’s easy for the Blue Raiders to move as one unit.
“The older guys have taken in the younger guys, and the younger guys have played well,” Toman said. “We don’t have a lot of “me” guys on the team. They say ‘there’s no I in team’, and it’s a cliche but I like how this squad is more team-oriented.”
Lopez added that the togetherness is created at the very beginning.
“One of the things we try to do is instill confidence in everybody from the moment they get here,” Lopez said. “I think it has really shown because a lot of guys feel like they can be themselves at all times, and they’re themselves when they go out there and play.”
With three weekends of conference play left in the regular season, the Blue Raiders have the opportunity to continue building on the impressive run they have put together so far. Winning games is obviously the ultimate goal for this squad, but even more important than that is playing as a team and having fun while doing it.
“I think we have the right combination of guys,” Toman said. “They don’t get too worried about things, and they have fun. The main thing is to have fun.”
Personally, I love the excitement you get when you ride a roller coaster, but some people aren’t as big of fans. Many people simply don’t enjoy roller coasters, and some have coasterphobia which is the fear of roller coasters. Regardless of whether or not you enjoy the feeling of twists and turns inside a coaster cart, there’s a seat for you inside The Reese.
Warning sign posted outside the field or not, this is your one-per-person, all-inclusive ticket to ride the raider roller coaster.