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TCU's culture of winning breeds CWS expectations

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Going into the College Station Super Regional, TCU played the uncharacteristic role of underdog.

It's an infrequent occurrence in this era of Horned Frogs baseball, but the logic was justified, even if you asked TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle. Host Texas A&M was the team with the No. 4 national seed next to its name and had a plethora of draft picks, great pitching, power hitting and more veteran players than the Frogs, not to mention the benefit of home-field advantage. None of that ultimately mattered, as the Horned Frogs upended the Aggies in the series 2-1, clinching a third consecutive trip to the College World Series.

It was a byproduct of the culture Schlossnagle has constructed at TCU.

"This program is unbelievable," TCU pitcher Brian Howard said. "The expectations are high but no one has higher expectations than the guys in that clubhouse and that locker room and those coaches."

Under Schlossnagle, the program's all-time winningest coach, the Horned Frogs are becoming fixtures in Omaha. That wasn't the case 10 years ago. The program didn't make its first appearance there until 2010, in Schlossnagle's seventh season in charge. This trip will be their fourth since then and is somewhat unexpected.

The Horned Frogs lost five everyday senior starters from their 2015 College World Series team and 51 percent of their total hits and RBIs. They were the preseason pick to win the Big 12, but by only two points. Had the season ended on Sunday night in College Station, by all accounts, it would have been considered a successful one. Coming into the super regionals, Texas A&M was an impressive 32-5 at home and averaged 7.5 runs per game at Olsen Field.

Schlossnagle intimated before and after the series that his team wasn't necessarily the better of the two.

"It's never about the best team, it's about the team that plays the best," Schlossnagle said after Sunday's series-clinching win. "I don't want to discount my club, but you know, there's 13 guys drafted off their team and a lot of them in the first 10 rounds. We're talented too, but we knew going in that this was a situation where we were going to have to play better baseball."

TCU did, holding the vaunted Aggies' lineup to a combined eight hits in the Frogs' Game 1 (8-2) and Game 3 (4-1) wins. Neither team was particularly successful at the plate in Game 3, but TCU benefited from winning what Schlossnagle calls the "freebie war," being the team that gives away the fewest free bases on the mound or on the field. In the decisive seventh inning of that win, TCU's three runs came on just one hit as the Horned Frogs benefited from three walks and an A&M error to take control of the game.

"Sometimes games are won and sometimes games are lost," Schlossnagle said. "I hate to see it go down that way for them but at the same time, we're excited about it and we'll take it any way that we can get it."

Those are simply footnotes of a larger trend. The Horned Frogs are now at the point that reaching the College World Series is a sensible, attainable goal every season, regardless of roster attrition. That becomes possible when you recruit the way they have. Case in point: Their best hitter, Luken Baker, is a true freshman, hitting an impressive .379 with nine homers and 57 RBIs while serving as the most difficult out in the super regional.

But it goes beyond just talent, according to those close to the program.

"They just have a culture of winning, expectations of winning," TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte said. "Schloss ... laid a foundation early. It speaks volumes when you have 50 of our former players back there working now. All of our pro players come back. When you start to have that energy around, they teach the young guys what to do next. It's amazing."

Preparation -- physically and mentally -- is at the core of Schlossnagle's methods. Players regularly cite the benefits of working with their mental strength coach, Brian Cain, and the emphasis on focusing on the micro (a single pitch) rather than the macro (a game, a season, etc.). Before the super regional, the Horned Frogs reviewed the 2010 Austin Super Regional -- the first one the Horned Frogs ever won -- because the situation was similar. TCU was going on the road against a national seed (at that time, No. 2 Texas) as an underdog, just as they would be to Texas A&M.

"We watched that series before we came here and we were reminded of that series [in Game 2] after [Texas A&M] kicked our rear end," TCU pitcher Mitchell Traver said. "At the end of the day, we won 4-1 just like last time. The reason why is because we just tried to win pitches. We didn't try to do too much. We didn't try to play for the ninth inning in the first; we just tried to win pitches and trusted the process and it worked out. We're used to playing in big games and that starts at the top, so I'm thankful."

The trait that most trickles down from Schlossnagle to his team? "His preparation," Del Conte said.

"When we built the brand new [baseball] facility, he wanted a classroom," Del Conte said. "I thought it was odd to build a classroom. He said, 'This is where I do all my teaching.' He takes all the video presentations, the mental part of the game; he's meticulous to a detail where the kids can comprehend it."

Traver cited Schlossnagle, pitching coach Kirk Saarloos and hitting coach Bill Mosiello as the ones who set the tone.

"Their leadership at the top keeps us calm," Traver said. "It enables us to play the best we can possibly play. They believe in us. They lead us well. The credit goes to them. I know we're the ones that play, but we wouldn't be who we are without them on or off the field."

Texas A&M coach Rob Childress, when asked if TCU's recent experience of being in Omaha played a role in the Horned Frogs' series win, said, "I don't. I think their coaches do an amazing job. Jim is a fantastic head coach. His two assistants are very special."

Whether the Horned Frogs can finish their 2016 journey with a championship remains to be seen. But their recent accomplishments suggest that more opportunities lay ahead.

"It's really incredible and I think what it speaks to is the pedigree for our program," Schlossnagle said. "A true program."