The 2016-2017 Shawnee baseball team was honored in front of their home crowd at Friday night's homecoming football game. Members of the team stood on the field at halftime in honor of their historic three-year state championship run culminating in last year's undefeated 40-0 season and No. 1 ranking in the nation. They won 52 games in a row stretching back to their last loss of 2016.
It was originally planned for the team to be honored at Shawnee's first home football game, but a delay in getting their rings prompted a slight change of plans. In honor of the team's three straight titles, they had the phrase “3 PEAT” etched on the side of the rings. But since the phrase is trademarked by Miami Heat President Pat Riley, the team had to wait for approval before using it.
The team was stacked with three NCAA Division I talents in Tanner Sparks (Oklahoma State University), Jake Taylor (Oklahoma State University) and Eli Davis (The University of Kansas) and returned seven starters from 2016. A fourth Division I athlete, Josh Rolette, helped lead the team to their first state title of the run before heading to Kansas State University until being drafted this summer by the Cleveland Indians. He is currently in an instructional league in Arizona.
Having so much talent on one team can cause egos to get in the way sometimes and was something former coach and current Shawnee Athletic Director Todd Boyer was concerned about. Fortunately, the team had such a strong bond and similar work ethic that it was never a problem, he said.
“Any time someone kind of got out of line a little bit there was that core group that said 'Hey, let's go get back in line and let's get busy.' I never had to address anything as far as ego and everybody did what was best for the team and that's why this ball club was so successful,” Boyer said.
The team's work ethic may have been unmatched.
The core ate, slept, and dreamed baseball and spent time on the field and in the batting cages constantly working to improve their game. Boyer said several would start before practice, stay after practice, work on evenings and weekends, whenever they could fit in the time to train they did it; and it showed.
That's not to say the team didn't have some misteps along the way. There were several times that they found themselves on the verge of losing their unbeaten streak, but they always recovered.
“They always felt like they were going to win,” Boyer said. “It didn't matter who we were playing, what the circumstances were, what inning. Our philosophy has always been that as long as you still have one out, you have a chance to win.”
The streak was always the last thing on the players minds though, Boyer said, showing the maturity level they shared to be level-headed enough to not feel the need to keep it up or let their national ranking go to their heads. Their main focus was winning their district and making it back to the state tournament – everything else was icing on the cake.
“All the other games were just for us to get better,” Boyer said. “I never heard our kids talk about the streak or say they needed to do this or that to keep the streak going, they just said, 'Today is a new day, today is a new opponent and today is another opportunity for us to get better and win another ball game.' ”
The team worked hard off the field too, winning two academic state championships along the way.
“Our kids worked extremely hard and we had a great group of, not just baseball players, but great kids. Along with the three state championships on the field, we won two academic state championships and were close to winning a third one. I'm so very, very proud of the kids in the way they handled themselves both on the field and off the field,” Boyer said.
For Boyer, winning games and going undefeated was nice, but his years coaching were always about fostering relationships with his athletes and coaches on both his own team and others.
“It's the relationships that you build with your players that last a lifetime and it's always nice to hear from those guys. When they grow up and get married and start having children, they graduate from college or whatever they choose to do and to hear how they're doing and the success they're having... It's always nice to hear from those guys,” he said.
One of those former players, Kevin Paxson is taking over this season as head coach following Boyer's departure after being at the helm for 11 years. Paxson previously was an assistant at Shawnee and is now returning to take over after a stint as the head coach at Putnam City.
Boyer said he tries to talk to his recent grads once every week or two to see how they are doing and help them with the transition from high school to college when he can.
Taylor is having a good fall, Boyer said, and Davis and Sparks are both getting back on the field and rehabilitating following surgeries.
“We talked and it's a year for both of those guys to physically get stronger and to get themselves fully healthy to be ready to compete at a high level. And both of those guys will take that challenge on,” Boyer said.
A.J. Barron rejoined with former teammate Logan Franklin at Seminole State College where the two will play under head coach Dax Leone and pitcher Talon Phillips moved on to play at El Reno Junior College, amongst other players over the years who have gone on to play in college.
“We're excited for all of those guys that baseball has provided them an opportunity to continue their education,” Boyer said.
Boyer treasures the relationships that he has built over the years and enjoyed watching his players mature from children into young men. Even with all the winning, success, trophies and recognition, that is what has always been most important.
“Showing up every day to the ballpark, that was easy,” he said. “It was a pleasure for me to be able to coach those young men and watch them grow up. Because this core group that just graduated, when they were freshmen, four of those guys started four years and to watch them mature over the four years and watch them become young men, and the quality young men that they've become is very gratifying for a coach. I know how fortunate I was to coach a group like that. Most people don't ever have the opportunity to have that situation in their entire career, so I know how fortunate I was to be able to coach that group.”