How OU baseball veteran Kendall Pettis' leadership is fueling Sooners into NCAA Tournament

NORMAN — When OU baseball received the news it wasn’t a top-eight overall seed in the NCAA tournament as projected, fifth-year senior Kendall Pettis delivered a message to the clubhouse.

Disappointed with the omission, Pettis felt he had a responsibility to gear his message more toward this group’s last chance to play together.

OU, the No. 9 overall seed and top seed in the Norman Regional in the NCAA Tournament, is led primarily by veteran players like Pettis who are playing their final days of collegiate baseball.

“I was reiterating to especially the older guys that this could be our last time playing competitively,” Pettis said. “Play every game like it's your last game and deal with the consequences after. I wanted to make sure that we're going out on the field and giving it our all because who knows who still has time and who’s time is up?”

The Sooners are still in good position to make a run in the tournament and are hosting a regional at L. Dale Mitchell Park for the first time since 2010. Duke (39-18) is one of the better No. 2 seeds nationally and UConn (32-23) is a solid No. 3 seed but OU has won 20 of its last 25 contests.

The Sooners (37-19) begin against Oral Roberts (27-30-1) at 6 p.m. Friday on ESPN+.

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Oklahoma outfielder Kendall Pettis (7) bunts the ball during an NCAA baseball game between Oklahoma (OU) and Dallas Baptist (DBU) in Norman, Okla., on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.
Oklahoma outfielder Kendall Pettis (7) bunts the ball during an NCAA baseball game between Oklahoma (OU) and Dallas Baptist (DBU) in Norman, Okla., on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.

From when Pettis arrived on campus ahead of the 2020 season to now, he’s seen the program skyrocket. After the COVID-19 pandemic canceled Pettis’ first season and OU missed the tournament in his second season, the Sooners clinched three consecutive regionals and were the NCAA runner-ups in 2022.

“The culture has been really good since Skip has taken over and his coaching staff is a really good group,” Pettis said. “They're one of the hardest working coaching staffs in America and they instilled that in us because we’re also a really hard-working group and how we treat everybody like family. That’s really crucial to our success.”

A Chicago native, Pettis committed to Johnson as the No. 8-ranked prospect in Illinois. Pettis was named an All-Big 12 honorable mention last season and played a major role in OU’s run to the Men's College World Series finals in 2022.

This season’s team is bittersweet for Pettis as it’s his final one in Norman and one he thinks has limitless potential.

“This is one of the better groups that I've been able to play with since I've been here,” Pettis said. “This group is really close, I'm really close with everybody on the team and we’ve got a special run ahead of us. We’ve got some tough teams in our regional but that's fine. We're excited to play just being here with these guys and enjoying every moment and loving having guys that I've known for two to four years.

“It's something I've always cherished since I've been here and so I'm enjoying the last run.”

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Pettis has primarily been known for his defense in the outfield throughout his collegiate career, making highlight-reel catches seemingly every weekend.

His diving catch in left field against TCU in the Big 12 tournament was the top play on SportsCenter’s top 10 last week. Pettis played shortstop growing up, which has translated to his instincts in the outfield.

“As crazy as it seems, in practice I really don't make (those plays) as much,” Pettis said. “Defense has been something I’ve always loved since I was a young kid. It’s something I've always worked on. I've had some friends who've gotten drafted who were pretty defense oriented and so I've always competed with them when we would go work.

“It's a lot of repetition, I'll tell you that. One thing that is important is you have to have a lot of confidence out there.”

Pettis’ offense has gotten going of late, which he credits to assistant coaches Reggie Willits and Russell Raley. Pettis is on a seven-game hit streak and finished with eight hits in the Big 12 tournament.

For Pettis, his uptick in offense is just another way he can help lead the team.

“Some people shy away from the postseason later in the year but I love this part of the year,” Pettis said. “That's where you get your money from and so I’m making sure that I'm on time for the fastball, and keeping my craft in order is something that I've always done. No matter how old I get, I'm always working on my craft until they rip the jersey off of me.”

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During one of the Big 12 tournament games last week freshman Jaxon Willits struck out and was beside himself.

Pettis approached the young player and told him to keep his head up and get back out on the field and play some defense. In Pettis’ mind, OU’s freshmen are practically sophomores and have grown mentally throughout the season, and it’s important for him to encourage and hold them accountable.

“Stay the course,” Pettis told Willits.

Friday's games

Norman Regional at L. Dale Mitchell Park:

  • Game 1: Duke vs. UConn, noon (ESPN+)

  • Game 2: Oklahoma vs. Oral Roberts, 6 p.m. (ESPN+)

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OU baseball: Kendall Pettis' leadership fuels Sooners in NCAA regional