Six Oklahoma State baseball players announced their return to Stillwater for the 2021 season via Twitter on Sunday afternoon.
Five of the Cowboys likely thought they played their final college game when the 2020 season came to an abrupt halt in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. The other could have left OSU to begin his professional career despite not being selected in a drastically shortened MLB Draft last week.
Their return is expected to give the Pokes a boost when it comes to preseason rankings next year, and on the field in the much-anticipated opening of O’Brate Stadium, which was scheduled to open a week after the shut down.
The five Cowboys who will be returning for a second senior season are outfielder Cade Cabbiness, first baseman Alix Garcia, utility player turned catcher Max Hewitt, outfielder Carson McCusker and right-handed pitcher C.J. Varela.
Left-handed pitcher Parker Scott also announced he’s coming back for another season after his junior year was shortened in March. Pitchers Ryan Van Leeuwen and Jacob Ruder didn’t play in the 2020 season, so their careers are likely over.
“Obviously, all of the kids are in the program, a different age, a different spot in school, and those particular kids all stand to come back and graduate this year, so that’s exciting for them,” OSU coach Josh Holliday said. “The guys that benefitted from the senior year opportunity – that’s great, and then the other kids in the program that turned down opportunities from professional baseball to sign as free agents but are coming back is big, as well, and there are others, not just the kids that announced it.
“We’re excited and thrilled to have them all back. … We’re ready to put our team together on paper now that we know where everybody stands and what their intentions are. Between the returning players and the newcomers, we like our roster. We think we’re going to have a really good team. That leadership that’s returning sure does help.”
In late March, the NCAA Division I Council voted to allow spring-sport student-athletes an additional season of competition and an extension of their period of eligibility.
Once that news was announced, Holliday said OSU planned to bring back the seniors who wanted to return for one last season. They just wanted to wait until last week’s MLB Draft to see how many rounds it was going to be and if they were drafted before announcing a possible return to Stillwater.
“The plan was definitely to have the kids back if this was the right step in their career,” Holliday said. “I think for all of the players involved, you have a lot of time on your hands during March, April and May to think about your life, school and where you’re heading with your degree, your baseball career and your personal growth. This is a decision that none of the kids came to lightly. They put a lot of thought into this and this is what they wanted to do.
“Our athletic department, starting with Coach (Mike) Holder, from the minute the senior year waiver and the extra year of eligibility was announced, welcomed those seniors back to school. The kids knew that. This has been each kid’s opportunity to think through their future and ultimately decide that another year on campus would help them finish school and keep their baseball career and development right here in Stillwater. We’re excited about what next year holds.”
Although the Cowboys will have five extra players on their 2021 squad, Holliday doesn’t believe it will have an impact on the program or recruiting. In fact, he’s happy to know those players will be returning to OSU for one last season.
“I think we’ll have more players on the team this year, but in the subsequent years to follow we’ll return to the standard roster size that we’ve worked with for years,” Holliday said. “In a one-year window of time – with all that’s gone on – it’s part of this experience of going through this. We’ll have a few more players on the team next year, but I don’t view that as a bad thing.
“We’re lucky as players and coaches to be at a school that can work through COVID-19 and all of the challenges it’s provided and still give the baseball program a great opportunity to compete. We’re grateful, to be honest with you, that we’re going to have that opportunity.”
All six of the returning Cowboys took to Twitter to announce they will be coming back next year. The OSU baseball account also tweeted video highlights of each player.
Cabbiness was hitting .281 in his 15 games played. Cabbiness had hit two home runs and four doubles this spring.
His message read, “These last four years of my life at Oklahoma State have brought me some of my best friends and has allowed me to form relationships that will last a lifetime. It has been one of the greatest blessings and best decisions of my life coming to Oklahoma State. The season being cut short was hard for myself and my teammates as we were looking forward to what was still ahead of us. With that being said, I’m looking forward to seeing what this team can accomplish. It’s a new time for Oklahoma State baseball. We have one goal in mind. See you at O’Brate.”
Garcia was hitting .250 when the season ended. He had 17 hits and two doubles during his senior campaign.
“When our season got cancelled, I thought my college career was over. After the vote to restore eligibility passed, I could not have been happier,” Garcia said in his message. “There is something special about the people in Stillwater. Something you do not get anywhere else in the country. I can’t wait to play at O’Brate Stadium in front of a sea of orange and black. I am excited and cannot wait to return to Stillwater to finish my degree and play my final season of eligibility.”
Hewitt was leading the Cowboys at the plate with a .410 batting average through 18 games. Hewitt had 25 hits, five doubles and one triple, along with 10 RBIs.
“Being a part of the Cowboy baseball program has been a dream come true,” Hewitt said in his Twitter message. “I am incredibly grateful and excited to return to Oklahoma State next season for my final year of eligibility. I am also grateful to finish my degree.”
Last year’s leading hitter, McCusker, got off to a slow start at the plate, but began finding his groove after the first eight games. He had three multiple-hit games in three of his last five outings after none in his first eight contests.
McCusker missed four games, but returned for the second of two home games against Saint Louis. He scored the final run of the season by stealing home in the seventh inning of the 7-1 victory.
“When the opportunity arose to be able to play one more year for my university, I thought you would be crazy not to take that,” McCusker said in his message. “I’m coming back because I have unfinished business. I’m coming back to see O’Brate Stadium rocking. I’m coming back to finish my degree. Most importantly, I am coming back to bring a championship to Stillwater.”
On the mound, senior C.J. Varela was 3-0 with a 1.17 ERA in his five outings, two of which he started.
His message read, “These last four years have been nothing but extraordinary. The guys that have been brought into my life because of Oklahoma State has allowed me to create lifelong relationships. I consider these guys my brothers for life. After having our season cancelled due to COVID-19, we were granted the opportunity for one last ride. This place is too special to hang it up after our shortened season, there’s only one thing on our minds: To bring a national championship to Stillwater. It’s time to start a new era of success at O’Brate Stadium!”
Scott made four starts on the mound this spring – throwing six innings in three of those contests and seven innings in the other. He had a 3-1 record with only six earned runs allowed.
“This past season was not what any of us expected it to be,” Scott said in his message. “After a lot of thought on my future in baseball, I have decided to come back to Oklahoma State to finish my degree. I came into Stillwater with these guys and we want to be able to finish on our own terms. We have some unfinished business. See you at O’Brate.”
The Cowboys’ new home stadium was set to open a week after spring sports came to a halt this spring. OSU fans might not have to wait until 2021 to watch the Pokes play in the new stadium.
“We’re really hopeful and working toward an opportunity in the fall,” Holliday said. “We’re still working alongside the university to get the campus opened back up in July, start working our way back to the school year and hopefully from there we get back on campus and back to normal activities with venues opening and families coming. It is our goal to try and do that with O’Brate Stadium this fall. The exact date and such – we’re still working on. In our minds, we’re targeting to do something special this fall.”