CLAREMORE — Seven years in the making...
On a grass sandlot behind Atwoods, the dream of reaching the NAIA World Series was just getting started for the Rogers State University Hillcat baseball team.
Head coach Ron Bradley, who had won state championships at West Fork (Ark.), Claremore and Jenks, was the perfect fit for breathing life into a soon-to-be baseball powerhouse on the Hill.
What may have been a dream back then when the Hillcats were practicing in T-shirts, worn-out baseball pants and cleats, is not so anymore as RSU is among the nation's elite competing this week for their first-ever NAIA National Championship.
Bradley and his Hillcats are playing for much more than a trophy. They are playing for a former teammate — the late Tyler Brown — and the city of Claremore. They are playing for the Sooner Athletic Conference — a traditionally-rich baseball league — and they are playing for respect.
In years past, when the Sooner Athletic Conference sent teams to the NAIA World Series, the familiar names — Oklahoma City University and Lubbock Christian University — were the ones punching their ticket to Lewiston, Idaho.
Don't get me wrong, OCU and LCU are very well-respected baseball programs and have won their share of championships over the years. But, this year, the talk around Lewiston — at least from the box scores — has been the "Cardiac Cats" from RSU.
Teams are finding it hard to steal a win from the Hillcats.
These young men have trailed in both of their previous World Series outings, only to see that "ONE HEARTBEAT" come to life late in the games.
Small-town guys such as Cade McKewon from Inola getting the big hit or former Owasso Ram hurler Brandon Bargas gutting out a nine-inning complete game performance with 18 strikeouts in the Hillcats' upset win over No. 1 LSU-Shreveport.
Going into today's showdown against No. 4 Tennessee-Wesleyan, the Hillcats remain the only team in the NAIA World Series with a 2-0 record. Three other teams — OCU, Lee (Tenn.) and Tennessee-Wesleyan — are 1-0.
RSU (48-14) made the long journey to Idaho with something to prove. They are better than a No. 9 seed in a field of 10 teams.
Could they be peaking at just the right moment?
If it's any indication after their 'feisty' performance in the Hutchinson (Kan.) where they had to win three tough games — beating Judson (Ill.) 9-5, Oklahoma Baptist 5-4 and Tabor College 7-3 — the heart of the Hillcats is showing up at just the right time.
There's no holding back to this team. They play hard. They play smart. They play the right way.
And, that's the way that Bradley has built the RSU baseball program.
Play with pride. Play with integrity. Play with HEART.
A lot of teams across the country would love to be in the Hillcats' shoes right now, but instead they have packed up their uniforms and equipment and are already planning for next season.
RSU, however, is enjoying the moment and making memories that hopefully culminate with the hoisting of a national championship trophy.
A trophy that reflects the desire, determination and heart that it takes to wear the Hillcat uniform.
In Lewiston, Idaho, opponents are 'Fearing the Claw'.