Breakout closer Troy Rallings has found a new weapon: meditation. And the breakout Huskies have found their collective toughness in defying the expectations of a Pac-12 bottom feeder will be key at this weekend’s regional at Mississippi, UW’s first NCAA tournament games since 2004.
By Gregg Bell
UW Athletics Director of Writing
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OXFORD, Miss. – Forget bats, balls, gloves and spikes.
The most important Huskies’ item that has made the trip here for UW’s first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade is Troy Rallings’ spiritual necklace.
Mental toughness may ultimately determine who wins this Mississippi regional over three (or four) hot, pressurized days in Dixie this weekend. Grit is what’s gotten the Huskies here as the Pac-12’s second-place finisher -- instead of 10th among 11 teams in their own league, as opposing coaches told them they’d be this season.
One of Washington’s biggest sources for the mental toughness is the black, metal pendant that hangs constantly from the neck of one the team’s most important players. The guy with a head of tousled, moppy, dark hair that most times of most days looks like it just got off a pillow. Or a beach, in his native Southern California.
“The necklace is ‘Om.’ Om is a vibration,” says Rallings, the sophomore native of Long Beach who has come out of nowhere this season with nine saves, including a Pac-12 co-leading seven in conference play, as a fill-in closer during Josh Fredendall’s ongoing recovery from elbow surgery.
“So it’s “Ohhhmmm ...”
At this point Rallings is back at UW sitting on a chair, in a second-floor lounge of the Wayne Gittinger Team Building. He’s overlooking right field at Husky Ballpark – and looking and sounding like a Zen master, the Huskies’ own Phil Jackson in baseball spikes and a beach-boy tank top.
“You meditate,” he said. “What that is, is acknowledging that the vibe that is within me exists in everyone else. Exists in the entire universe.”
"For the guys on our club who could have signed (professionally) out of high school, for the guys on our club who could have gone to other places, this is why you came."
Rallings’ and the Huskies’ universe is now centered about 90 minutes southeast of Memphis and Graceland. Washington (39-15-1, 21-9) begins its first NCAA tournament since 2004 here on Friday at 1 p.m. against Georgia Tech (36-25), the champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Washington’s quest for quick start in this regional plus a fifth-ever season with 40 wins will stream live via subscription on ESPN3.com, and I will have the live, free game chat from the Swayze Field press box here on GoHuskies.com.
UW will play Saturday against either the winner or loser of Friday night’s Mississippi (41-18)-Jacksonville State (36-25) game.
And Rallings will again be meditating and praying and Om-ing all weekend.
“Yeah,” Lindsay Meggs deadpanned before being named as the Pac-12’s coach of the year on Wednesday, “Troy’s an interesting guy.”
THIS TOUGH ROAD FITS THIS HARDENED TEAM
What works for Rallings doesn’t work for every Husky. Leading hitter Brian Wolfe laughs while playfully describing how lost his closer gets in his favorite world and house music. Those beats blare into Rallings’ ears through his headphones, creating a personal rave that seems to break out at the closer’s locker before practices and games.
This, however, does work for every Dawg: Returning to the NCAA tournament after a 10-year absence. And with a chip the size of batting helmets on each of their shoulders.
The Huskies came within a single, 1-0 game decided on the final pitch at the nation’s top-ranked team from potentially winning their first league title in 16 years. They were that plus a hiccup last weekend against UCLA from hosting not just this weekend’s regionals but potentially next weekend’s super regionals.
But this – practicing Wednesday instead at a high-school field amid the mugginess and magnolias here in northern Mississippi, dodging a huge, afternoon dumping of rain while preparing for opening Friday’s double-elimination regional as the second seed and lone far-flung visitor in Ole Miss’ four-team regional – this is exactly where these rugged Huskies want to be.
Overlooked. Underappreciated. Plowing on a harder path. And primed for yet another breakout in a program-turning season full of them.
“We are going in as a team nobody expected to be here at this time,” Meggs said of his supposedly next-to-last team that ended up second in the Pac-12, just behind top-ranked Oregon State.
“I’ve told our guys: For the guys on our club who could have signed (professionally) out of high school, for the guys on our club who could have gone to other places, this is why you came,” said Meggs, in this his fifth season of reviving UW baseball. “It doesn’t get any better. You go to a regional, to a super regional, hopefully someday to Omaha (Nebraska, site of next month’s College World Series), it’s going to be an experience unlike any other.”
A day before they left for here the Huskies gathered in the aptly named Omaha Room of the Gittinger Team Building for a Memorial Day morning viewing of the tournament selection show. When the NCAA revealed Ole Miss essentially got the final regional-host spot over Washington, it just seemed to fit these Dawgs.
Stocked with white-chip recruits few others wanted, veterans of the upheaval of Meggs’ regime change that have reinvented UW’s program, they’ve proven to be as tough as any team in the country.
“I’ve told all my family and my friends, even guys on our own team: This team is the team I’ve always hated to play against. We know how to play hard and play together,” says speedy sophomore center fielder Braden Bishop, who on Wednesday joined catcher Austin Rei, Wolfe, second baseman Andrew Ely and starting pitcher Tyler Davis on the all-Pac-12 first team – not bad for the league’s “10th-place team.”
“When we hit that adverse situation we don’t turn away from the situation or from each other,” Bishop said.
“We always preach finish. And that’s what we are going to do.”
This is a unique time in UW baseball history, for more reasons than this obvious rise back to the NCAA tournament and this chance to advance to the Huskies’ first super regional. If the program -- with its sparking new Husky Ballpark and team performance center supporting this spring’s breakout -- keeps progressing per Meggs’ plan, Washington will never have to be as tough as it is right now.
“For every Braden Bishop we have on this club, for every Jeff Brigham (UW’s No. 3 starting pitcher that is as athletically gifted as the wall-climbing center fielder) we have on this club, we have three guys that are average runners with average arm strengths,” Meggs says, detailing the intangibles that are the Huskies’ greatest assets. “Guys who have to play the game a little harder and overachieve for us to have success.
“Hopefully as we continue to win we will be able to get more of the athletic kids in the program. And when we can do that we will have more margin for error.
“But our guys right now, you know, they embrace that they need (to be tough).”
As Bishop says: “We might not have the most talented group and the most talented guys and the biggest names. But you can put us on the field with the biggest names and we are going to play just as hard if not harder. I can guarantee that.”
THE HISTORY OF NO. 2’S AT NCAA REGIONALS
Sure, this isn’t the easiest road for the Huskies to advance. But it’s far from Mission: Impossible.
Since the NCAA baseball tournament expanded into its present, 64-team format with 16 regionals in 1999, 44 teams that were seeded second as a visitor in the first round won that regional. An average of three No. 2 regional seeds have advanced each year to a super regional.
In every one of the last 15 NCAA tournaments, there have been at least two No. 2 seeds advance from the situation the Huskies have here this week -- a four-team regional on a foreign field. Six No.-2 regional seeds advanced in 1999 and again in 2007.
And 15 teams that have entered a regional as a second of four seeds have made it all the way to Omaha. That’s an average of one per year.
So to invoke the phrase these Huskies began using during a season-turning team meeting in February, immediately following a downer of a loss to Indiana in Surprise, Ariz.: Why not us?
Then there’s this: It’s still possible Washington could host a super regional next week. if the Huskies advance and Louisiana-Lafayette, another top regional seed playing near here, doesn’t make it out of its home site, UW could end up as the highest remaining seed in its side of the national bracket.
First things first, of course. And this weekend has a good chance of coming down to the man who ends things for the Huskies.
SECOND ISN’T ALWAYS SUNK AT A REGIONAL
Washington is seeded second in the four-team regional hosted this weekend by Mississippi. Since the NCAA baseball tournament expanded into its present, 64-team format with 16 regionals in 1999, 44 teams that were seeded second as a visitor in the first round won that regional. An average of three No. 2 regional seeds have advanced each year to a super regional.
The most recent No. 2s to advance: (Bold includes teams that advanced to CWS)
|Year||No. of super-regional hosts to CWS|
|2013||Rice||Won regional final at UNC|
|Oklahoma||Won regional final at Virginia Tech|
|2012||Oklahoma||Won regional final vs. App. State|
|TCU||Won regional final vs. Ole Miss|
|Arkansas||Won RF vs. Sam Houston St., advanced to CWS|
|2011||Connecticut||Won regional final at Clemson|
|Stanford||Won regional final vs. Illinois|
|2010||Clemson||Won 2nd RF at Auburn, advanced to CWS|
|Alabama||Won two RF games at Georgia Tech|
|Vanderbilt||Won regional final at Louisville|
|2009||Arkansas||Won RF at Oklahoma, advanced to CWS|
|Virginia||Won RF at UCI, advanced to CWS|
|2008||Wichita State||Won regional final at Oklahoma|
|UC Irvine||Won regional final at ORU|
|2007||Michigan||Won regional final at Vanderbilt|
|UC Irvine||Won RF at Texas, advanced to CWS|
|Mississippi State||Won RF at Florida State, advanced to CWS|
|Clemson||Won regional final at Coastal Carolina|
|Cal State - Fullerton||Won RF vs. Fresno State, advanced to CWS|
|UCLA||Won regional final at Long Beach State|
|2006||Miami (Fla.)||Won RF vs. Manhattan, advanced to CWS|
|South Carolina||Won 2nd regional-final game vs. Evansville|
|College of Charleston||Won regional final at Kentucky|
|2005||Rice||Won regional final at LSU|
|Arizona State||Won RF at Coastal Carolina, advanced to CWS|
|USC||Won 2nd regional-final game vs. Pepperdine|
THE POWER OF ZEN
Meggs and coaches have discussed making Rallings a starter whenever Fredendall, this season's expected closer out for two years now, returns from elbow ligament replacement surgery. But this unique soul has told the Huskies he was born to close instead, to enter games at their moments of highest pressure and highest payoff.
Rallings’ recent dedication to studying divine teachings from 800-500 B.C. have reinforced that inner belief – and thus have added to his all-effort, fastball-heavy arsenal of weapons coming out of the bullpen.
“I’ve always been kind of, for whatever reason, drawn to Eastern cultures,” Rallings said. “The benefits have been unbelievable.”
He doesn’t just mean in baseball. He’s studying better. Sleeping better. Living a better life.
Can’t beat that for a college experience, one he can take far past his unique days at UW.
“It’s not all about the results. It’s not about the strikeouts. It’s not about throwing a perfect inning. It’s about every time I go out there giving it everything that I have. And the results will follow.”
“I would describe my state on the mound as very Zen. It’s very relaxed,” he said. “Even though they are the moments of the highest intensity, I’m more relaxed in those chaotic situations than I am anywhere else in my life.
“I’ll make sure I’m warmed up and loose, ready to play,” Rallings said of Friday, Saturday and perhaps beyond. “But I’ll say a quick prayer, send some good vibes out to the universe – and just get ready to go.”
Rallings allowed the winning hit on his only pitch in that 1-0 loss at Oregon State two weeks ago, when Golden Spikes Award semifinalist Davis (10-2) was so brilliant over 124 pitches and 8 1-3 innings in Corvallis.
Yet Rallings isn’t bothered at all by that heading into this NCAA tournament.
Did I mention his mental toughness?
“What’s important to me is that I tell myself every time – I’ll take a deep breath before I step on the field – to just leave it all out there,” Rallings said. “It’s not all about the results. It’s not about the strikeouts. It’s not about throwing a perfect inning.
“It’s about every time I go out there giving it everything that I have. And the results will follow.”
It’d sure be groovy, dude – just downright Om, really -- if those results follow him and his Huskies throughout this mega weekend in Mississippi.
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
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