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Inside Pitch Magazine, July/August 2022

Coaches' Corner: The Dream Season

The 2019 Northern Oklahoma College Enid Jets' Improbable Run to a National Championship

By Alan Buonasera, Ranger College (TX) Assistant Baseball Coach

2019 NOC Enid team surrounding home plate while #6 runs down the third baseline after hitting a home run In October of 2021 my youngest son, Alec, called me from the campus of the University of Central Oklahoma. The fall baseball season had just concluded and Alec had played well enough to earn playing time in left field, a new position for him. The purpose of the call was to tell me that he needed to retire from playing baseball to prevent further injury to his already damaged lower back. He told me that the pain was more than he could bear and he no longer looked forward to showing up at the ballpark. I calmly told him that I understood and that it was time for him to move on to his life after baseball. Then I hung up the phone and I cried. 

I knew this day was coming but I wasn’t ready for it. Just two years earlier he had a breakout season at NOC Enid and his stock was soaring. But this isn’t a story about heartbreak and dreams unfulfilled. It is the opposite. This is a story about miracles. It’s a story about what can happen when a team is well coached, recruits high-character kids, has support from the community, has leadership from within, and loves one another. Not to mention a lot of talent and a little luck!

The 2019 season began with high expectations for the Jets. They returned most key players from a third place finish in the NJCAA D2 World Series in 2018, including All American EJ Taylor (1B), Dylan Caplinger (C), DJ Calvert (SS), Braxton Douthit (RHP), Kaleb McCullough (RHP), and Brendan Woelfle (Util.). Also returning were two unheralded outfielders, Tanner Neely and Seth Graves. They hardly played as freshmen, but my goodness was that about to change! Those two, along with Garrett Meisenheimer and Jarrett Sweeney were all key contributers to what took place during the season.  

The team sported a high national ranking and they were full of confidence. Alec, who won the job at 3B, told me he didn’t think they would lose many games. And at first he was right. Veteran Head Coach Raydon Leaton had put together a formidable early season schedule against top competition. This resulted in a few early season losses but it would pay dividends later in the season. Then came the first of many injuries that crippled the pitching staff. In the third series of the year staff ace Braxton Douthit suffered a season ending arm injury. It was a devastating blow. McCullough was elevated to staff ace and took on a greater than expected workload. Coach Leaton was forced to bring along freshmen Brandon Hudson, Stevie Owings, and Wyatt Sellars quicker than he wanted to, and it’s a good thig he did. All would play key roles later in the season. There were position player issues as well. Calvert, Caplinger, and Alec all missed some games due to various injuries. Woelfle became a superman of a utility player, filling in wherever needed. The Jets often had to out hit their opponents to win and they got pretty good at it, ending the season among the nation’s leaders in all team offensive categories. The Jets stayed competitive as the year went on but lost some key games and limped to a third place finish in conference play. The class of the conference was Western Oklahoma who was loaded with individual talent. They won the conference going away and later that year four of their position players were selected in the 2019 MLB draft. They had more talent that year than any JUCO team I saw at any level, including McLennan and Grayson who are both powerhouse programs in NJCAA Region 5. The season was incredibly fun for me. The Jets played 60 games and I bet I saw 30 of them. I was a coach when I wanted to interact with coaches. I was a parent when I wanted to interact with parents. But I was always a fan and always supported my son. Now let’s move on to the miracles.

Miracle #1:

Clay Lockett. In 2019 all teams still qualified for the NJCAA Region 2 Tournament which is held at David Allen Memorial Ballpark in downtown Enid, Oklahoma—the Jets’ home field. The Jets opened with a win but a listless performance in game two resulted in an 8-0 loss to Carl Albert. Now in the loser’s bracket, every next contest was an elimination game. RHP Evan Kowalski pitched the Jets past regular season champion Western Oklahoma and the Jets found themselves in the finals. But having a loss already they would have to beat Redlands twice, who came out of nowhere to play red-hot baseball.

The finals were on Sunday and Redlands was still hot and built an early 11-3 lead. The Jets fought back and managed to close the gap to 11-8. By that time it was the bottom of the 9th inning and there were 2 outs, but the bases were loaded. Enter Clay Lockett, a seldom used backup middle infielder that only had five hits all year long. Clay had entered the game late as a pinch runner and found himself coming to the plate with the Jets’ season on the line. In a 3-1 count the unthinkable happened. Clay, who had only hit one home run in his entire life, launched a fastball over the left field wall for a walk-off grand slam and the Jets won 12-11. This unlikely turn of events meant another game was to be played. In between games the players and parents mingled on the concourse at DAMB still in shock and disbelief at what just happened. Someone had retrieved the home run ball and presented it to Clay’s father. He was clutching the ball in one hand and Clay’s jersey in the other. Tears were streaming down his face and I’m not sure I have ever seen a happier man. 

From that one swing of the bat Clay received a scholarship to Southern Nazarene where he went on to be a star for the next two years. You could play that situation out again a thousand times and it would never turn out that way again. But it did on that day and it remains one of the most exciting finishes to a baseball game that I have ever personally witnessed. Of course the Jets still had to beat Redlands again but after just having their hearts ripped out Redlands came out flat and got boatraced in game two. The Jets were off to the NJCAA D2 World Series for the second straight year! 

Miracle #2:

Dylan Caplinger. During the 2019 season the Caplinger family was going through a difficult time and Dylan’s play over the course of the season had ebbs and flows. A very talented player, Dylan was a game changing defensive catcher and had a penchant for big hits in crucial situations. The Jets won their WS opener against Kellogg CC on a rain-soaked field and advanced to a second round matchup against #1 seed Pearl River. In a beautifully played game, freshman Brandon Hudson pitched the game of his life and the Jets won 4-2. They then had a sloppy one run loss to Pasco Hernando but dusted them off in the rubber match the next night and the Jets found themselves in the National Championship Game for the first time in program history. 

Their opponent was Mesa CC and Pitcher of the Year Carter Robinson. Mesa jumped out to an early 2-0 lead but the Jets had overcome adversity all year long and came roaring back right away. EJ Taylor homered, Caplinger doubled, Alec singled in Caplinger, Garrett Meisenheimer followed up with a single, and Woefle singled Alec home. Just like that the Jets had the lead. Mesa tied the game 4-4 on a pinch hit home run late in the game. Wyatt Sellars had pitched a remarkable game and got the game into the 8th inning before being relieved by Hudson. Going into the 9th inning the game was still tied 4-4, which set the stage for Caplinger. In his last at-bat as a Jet, Dylan hit one onto the railroad tracks behind the left field wall putting the Jets up 5-4. Over 4200 hometown fans at DAMB erupted as Dylan circled the bases. Hudson closed out the 9th and the Jets were National Champions! It was the last baseball game that Dylan’s father would ever see him play.

Miracle #3:

Joan Allen. Paul and Joan Allen are very well known in Enid, and in all of Oklahoma really. There is no way I can adequately list all the things they have done for the City of Enid and the State of Oklahoma. I’m not even going to try. Instead I will talk about what they have done for the game of baseball. They had a son named David that loved baseball and was a good enough player to play at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. During his college days he was traveling between the two cities and was involved in a terrible auto accident that left David severely debilitated. He came back to Enid and lived a number of years before the injuries he sustained in the accident ultimately claimed his life. To honor their son and his love of the game, Paul and Joan built David Allen Memorial Ballpark in downtown Enid. The ballpark is unique and is on the list of the Best Small Ballparks in America. The park is the shared home field of Enid HS and the NOC Enid Jets. It is the host site for many regional and national tournaments, both at the HS and college level. The ballpark is quaint, has charm, and reminds me of an old style minor league park. It’s one of my favorite ballparks—partly because it houses baseball that is played in its purest form. 

Paul and Joan were fixtures at the Jets’ games, especially during the post season. In 2019 Joan Allen’s health was failing which kept her from attending many games. However, she managed to attend the Championship Game and viewed it from her suite. In the middle of the 7th inning, instead of the customary stretch, Joan Allen was recognized by the stadium PA announcer and the crowd rose to a standing ovation. Joan passed away two weeks later. I wasn’t there to confirm this but I was told by a reliable source that among her last words were, “I’m ready to go now after seeing the Jets win.” 

For all of these things to have occurred in one season of baseball is beyond remarkable. Those of us that were along for the ride will never forget it. It was a dream season in every way—every coach’s dream, every player’s dream, and every parent’s dream—truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Watching my son accept his National Championship award after the game was one of my proudest and most joyous moments as a father. 

David Allen Memorial Ballpark and Enid, Oklahoma will always be very special places to me. It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.

Inside Pitch Magazine is published six times per year by the American Baseball Coaches Association, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt association founded in 1945. Copyright American Baseball Coaches Association. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any way without prior written permission. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained herein, it is impossible to make such a guarantee. The opinions expressed herein are those of the writers.
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