Sep 2, 2013
Left-hander Michael O'Neal will play his senior season at Auburn.
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - Much of Plainsman Park is a construction site as first-year Auburn baseball coach Sunny Golloway works to get his program off the ground. But Golloway's one-word goal for Auburn baseball is never far away.
In the batting cages, undergoing renovation, the mural is already on the wall. It reads "Road to Omaha." Omaha is stitched on the back of practice shirts. It's part of almost every conversation.
Auburn hasn't been to Omaha, where the national champion is crowned, since 1997. Golloway has no intention of it being that long again.
"That," Golloway says, "is our goal and will always be our goal."
In June, Golloway left Oklahoma to replace John Pawlowski as Auburn's head coach. He's taken teams to NCAA regionals in 14 of the past 15 seasons. As a head coach, he took Oklahoma to four super regionals and one College World Series. He made the trip to Omaha twice as an Oklahoma assistant.
But before the work of winning can begin there is work to be done behind the scenes. Fall practice will start early next week. Construction continues on new locker rooms and other amenities for players. An opening is being built into the left field fence so the Auburn bullpen will no longer be hidden. Golloway and his staff will move offices in the building next door when they are ready. When this round of improvements is over, Golloway has more ideas.
"You understand when you accept a challenge like this that there are going to be days that are going to be real exciting," Golloway said. "You are going to see some change, whether it's work ethic, attitude or facilities. Other days, it's going to be a little slow. We've had a mixture of those.
"There are deadlines for some of the facility improvements. I'm sure those deadlines will be met. What's been tough is not having an office, basically. We're trying to get that done. We are even getting our hands dirty. We had the coaches out there, and we were all helping move stuff early (last) week. I had my truck loaded down."
Golloway faced an early challenge of dealing with a scholarship crisis that had been left to him.
Numerous Auburn players who had been drafted in the past weren't chosen in the major league draft and wanted to return for their senior seasons. With only 11.7 scholarships available and a new crop of signees on board, something had to give. The result was that players took reduced portions of scholarships.
Golloway praised associate athletics director David Mines, the baseball administrator, for handling a difficult situation.
"He wanted to be the one to handle that and make phone calls and talk to some of the student-athletes returning and explain the situation," Golloway said. "It's clearly a situation we don't ever want our program to be involved in again.
"To tell the absolute truth, it wasn't a good situation because of the way it was left. Something had to be done. Where I was impressed was David didn't even hesitate. Those aren't phone calls you want to make. He spent three days basically hunkered down in his office. You probably get beat up a little bit, but he got it done."
The result is Auburn will have 11 seniors next season, a remarkably high number for a college baseball team.
Centerfielder Ryan Tella, an 11th-round pick in 2012, is back. Third baseman Damek Tomscha, catcher Blake Austin, starting pitcher Michael O'Neal, closer Terrance Dedrick, outfielder Hunter Kelley and shortstop Dan Glevenyak are among those back who might not have been.
"I've watched Blake Austin," Golloway said. "I've watched Tella. There is no reason those guys and some others didn't get drafted last year. It has to do with overall performance, I think, and where the program has been."
Golloway wonders, too, why outfielder Sam Gilikin scarcely played after the early games of his freshman season. He wonders why flame-throwing left-hander Rock Rucker wasn't on the roster for a single SEC series. He looks at his roster, and he likes what he sees.
"This is going to be a great situation," Golloway said. "There are some outstanding athletes."
Golloway's staff is set with Scott Foxhall returning as pitching coach, former major leaguer Greg Norton as hitting coach and former Central Alabama Community College assistant Hunter Vick as the volunteer assistant. Ryan Jenkins, an All-SEC Tiger catcher in 2010, is a student assistant.
They will finish individual workouts with players this week and go full-bore into fall practice next week. Golloway says he's already identified some areas in need of work. There'll be others.
"We've got Coach Foxhall getting their arms in shape, and Coach Norton is getting their swings ready," Golloway said. "We're going to start intrasquads about two or three days a week while we practice. We will fix the things we see broken.
"Right now, you look at the dam and there's a lot of water leaking, but we'll get there."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: