Erik Hughes knew the team had potential.
Noble’s first-year baseball coach arrived last offseason with a team that had just made it to the state quarterfinals, the program’s first state tournament berth since 2015. With most of the players returning, expectations were high for the Bears coming into this season.
But Hughes knew it could take some time for the team to gel.
“We knew we had the ability [to make it back to state], but we did know we’d have to go through some growing pains to be here,” Hughes said. “That’s what happened earlier in the season.”
He’s right, as the Bears didn’t look like a no-brainer state tournament team early in the season. Through the first three weeks, they lost seven of their first 13 games. After a loss to McAlester on April 9, the team’s record stood at 9-9.
Something changed from that point forward. The Bears closed out the regular season winning 14 of 16 games, which was enough to be named a host for the Class 5A regional tournament.
There’s not a specific thing that spurred the Bears’ improvement, Hughes said. For the most part, the team just found a rhythm.
“From the start of March to now, we’ve turned 180 degrees,” Hughes said. “Our schedule was tough. It took the boys a week or two to get used to playing at a top level every day. But at the start of April, we started clicking. We realized, ‘It’s a game. It’s another team over there full of human beings. Let’s just go over there and play.’”
Senior Braden Harper attributes the turnaround to the team’s mindset.
“We came together as a team,” Harper said. “We had team bonding on some weekends and it kind of just clicked.”
The Bears kept the momentum going in the postseason. They opened the regional tournament with a 12-2 win over Guymon and a 5-0 win over Bishop McGuinness in the next round.
They were matched up again with McGuinness in the regional final. The Bears jumped out to an early 8-2 lead before McGuiness rallied, but Noble was able to hang on to earn its second consecutive state tournament appearance.
“Game 1, our pitching and defense saved us,” Hughes said. “Game 2, our hitting saved us. Our kids just decided this is our home and we’re going to defend it. McGuinness tried to come back and we just kept fighting.”
A big part of the team’s rally has been its hitting, as five different players have recorded 37 or more hits this season.
That effort has been led by Colin Fisher. The junior leads the team in batting average (.404), on-base percentage (.576), runs (35) and home runs (4).
Fisher, who’s committed to play baseball at Arkansas, has been a steady presence for the team this season.
“He’s a tremendous kid,” Hughes said. “[He’s one of those] kids that you pray to coach. He’s never an issue. He plays hard every game. He’s got quite a bit of ability, as well.
“He’s the same kid if he does bad and he’s the same kid if he does well. He’s just one of those unique kids that his mannerism never changes.”
But the Bears aren’t just satisfied with making the state tournament again. They’re looking to make noise this season.
Last year’s team struggled in the state quarterfinals against Bishop Kelly, particularly at the plate, as they fell 2-0. Fisher said they learned a valuable lesson after that loss.
“We learned to just keep calm and play our game,” Fisher said. “Don’t play someone else’s game.”
Their first shot at redemption comes at 1 p.m. Thursday against Sapulpa at Edmond Santa Fe. and Hughes is confident his team is ready.
“We’re prepared for it,” Hughes said. “When we get up there, the big stage isn’t going to shock us. It’s not going to make us nervous. That’s the plus to having the maturity of a team that’s been there before.”