The members of the Ohio State baseball team sat together in The Boardroom of the Schottenstein Center Monday, waiting to hear the Buckeyes’ placement in the NCAA tournament.
Each player, donning a red ‘Buckeyes’ shirt with white block-O hats, sat in their chairs, forming a sea of red and white in the dimly lit room.
With every regional announced that did not have Ohio State, a quiet groan could be heard, and the tense backs of the players listening to the ESPNU broadcasters eased up as everyone leaned back in their chair, trying to stay relaxed.
Except, not every player needed to ease up. Senior utility player Noah McGowan sat back in his booth, cell phone in hand, watching the names of schools appear in their respective slots of the brackets. There was no panic. No tenseness. Just patience.
As Ohio State’s name was called out as the No. 3 seed in the Greenville regional and the sea of red and white erupted into waves of celebration, McGowan sat there in the same position with a straight face. It took him a couple seconds before he set his phone down and joined his teammates, clapping and smiling in celebration.
McGowan never had any doubts about his team’s chances of reaching the tournament, so he was not super emotional. “There’s not really much to say,” he said after reaching the tournament for the first time in his career.
“We were pretty confident that we were going to get in,” he said. “Had a good season, so I mean, we were confident that we were going to get in and make the tournament and we just didn’t know where we were going to be.”
McGowan has waited his whole life to reach the NCAA tournament. With the new-found confidence he had this season, built largely off his patient approach at the plate, waiting the few extra minutes for Ohio State to be announced was no problem.
On a team laden with seniors, McGowan was one of three who had never before reached the tournament. A transfer after the 2016 season, McGowan left McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, for Columbus in pursuit of the opportunity to compete for a title. With Ohio State coming off a Big Ten tournament title and NCAA tournament appearance in 2016, the odds seemed pretty good he would have his chance.
But Ohio State, having lost the bulk of its lineup and two weekend starting pitchers from that squad, suffered through its worst season in program history, limping its way to a 22-34 overall record and missing both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments altogether.
McGowan — expected to be a key cog in that lineup — looked lost at the plate, recording just a .214 batting average, .352 on-base percentage and .405 slugging percentage with five home runs, striking out in 21 percent of his at-bats.
Head coach Greg Beals said the slugger, who crushed pitchers in his final season at McLennan to the tune of a .393/.511/.674 slash line, had never been faced with much adversity before 2017 and that he “struggled for the first time in his life as a baseball player.”
“I think he got beat by the process last year of dealing with the failures that this game inevitably is going to deliver to you at some point,” Beals added. “He learned a lot from last year and I think that’s really helped him. We trained really well and he made some adjustments, but I think the biggest thing is he made adjustments and he grew mentally.”
In learning to deal with failure, McGowan ensured, he would not encounter it as much in 2018. He finished the year leading his team across the board with a .359/.449./581 slash line — all of which placed him in the Big Ten’s top 10 — and nine home runs.
He became more selective at the plate, walking 12.5 percent of the time along with a 15.6 percent strikeout rate. The patience was the result of just remaining more relaxed in the batter’s box, he said.
“Just trying to play the game and when you’re just natural with it, it just comes easy and you just see the ball well and you hit it,” McGowan said.
McGowan has been the team’s offensive leader, and his turnaround is one of the biggest reasons Ohio State has made it this far. The Buckeyes were not expected to finish 36-22 or reach the Big Ten tournament semi-finals, let alone make it to the NCAA tournament. Based on most preseason predictions, McGowan’s career was going to end without him having ever reached the NCAA tournament.
But he defied those predictions and gave his team the chance to compete for a national title. Ohio State will enter as an underdog to No. 2 South Carolina, and would be an even heavier underdog against No. 1 seeded East Carolina — the No. 12 national seed.
That doesn’t scare McGowan though. He said he’s happy with the regional in which his team has been placed. He feels the Buckeyes have what it takes to win.
His goals have now changed. When he came to Ohio State, he wanted to make the NCAA tournament and just have the chance to compete for a title. Now he’s in. And he wants more.
“Get to Omaha and play in the College World Series,” McGowan said.
The road to Omaha, Nebraska, and Ohio State’s first College World Series berth since 1967 runs through Greenville, where the Buckeyes will play against South Carolina. And McGowan can’t set foot on that road until 2 p.m. Friday.
Until then, McGowan will have to keep waiting.