OMAHA, Neb. — The Tigers hung their heads and stepped off the field for the final time.
Their cleats carried weary legs off the grass, out of the spotlight and into the dugout, and then on up the narrow dark tunnel back to the somber Auburn locker room. The bill of their hats hung low covering their eyes, their cheeks stained with eye black, and their uniforms smeared with the famous Omaha dirt from the College World Series.
By the time the Tigers got back to that locker room, they were already thinking about coming back for some more of that dirt.
The Auburn baseball team will return most of its starting lineup next season, working to employ the experience it gained this year in the program’s first trip to the College World Series in 22 years — with the aim ahead to get right back to Omaha next season.
“This is a great experience — great opportunity — and we for sure want to be back,” second baseman Ryan Bliss said in front of his locker, a few minutes removed from head coach Butch Thompson’s talk to the team in the dugout, and all the hugs and pats on the back in the quiet locker room.
“I think we can make a run next season,” he said.
Looking across that dejected locker room around him, the talent is there. Bliss is a freshman. Fiery sophomore third baseman Edouard Julien across the way could be back. Sophomores Steven Williams and Judd Ward anchor the outfield with freshman Kason Howell. First baseman Rankin Woley, designated hitter Conor Davis and catcher Matt Scheffler are all juniors.
“We will be back,” Scheffler typed into the glow of his phone as the team traveled back to the Plains, and fired off in a tweet.
Every position starter could be back except star shortstop Will Holland, who was drafted in the fifth round of the MLB Draft by the Minnesota Twins. Julien was drafted by the Twins in the 18th round but will decide soon if he’ll go or stay.
Either way, the Tigers will have plenty of firepower coming back — now with the experience of the College World Series in tow.
Auburn lost to Mississippi State by just one run in walk-off fashion at 5-4 on Sunday, before the team’s two-run loss to Louisville at 5-3 went final on Wednesday.
“I came away thinking that Auburn baseball can play in this deal without having to do anything magical,” Thompson said outside that locker room. “Of course if we played a little cleaner, I still think we’re playing baseball here in the World Series.
“But I think as time goes by, I’ll see that we have the ingredients. We have the ingredients with our staff. I think we have the ingredients with the fanbase. I think we have the ingredients with the players.”
Thompson’s now led Auburn through a natural progression through the postseason through his first four years at Auburn. The team made the Regional round his second year, then the Super Regional round his third year, before the College World Series this year.
The next goal is to earn College World Series wins and make noise in Omaha — and this experience should pay off for the Tigers chasing that goal.
“I think you’ve seen it pay off with the last two clubs,” Thompson said. “I think you’ve seen it pay off getting to a Regional, and then coming back and seeing what’s possible and get to a Super Regional, and coming back, seeing what’s possible and getting to a College World Series.
“I was wanting to skip a step on the staircase,” he joked.
The intentions won’t change, though, he said. The ultimate goal is the national championship.
His Tigers players are right there with him.
“I think we’ll have a bright future,” Julien said. “We’ll work harder and become better next year.”
Julien said he hadn’t thought about his decision to stay or go just yet, keeping his focus on Auburn’s season to the end. Holland and Julien were drafted along with pitchers Davis Daniel, Jack Owen and Elliott Anderson. Daniel was drafted in the seventh round. Owen was drafted in the 21st round before Anderson was picked in the 23rd.
“There’s no ceiling for Auburn baseball,” Holland said. “I think we just play a different kind of ball here, and I think a lot of people should respect it. This program’s just — it’s changed my life, and I wouldn’t trade anything for it.”
Next year, the Tigers coming back aim to push Auburn baseball to even greater heights.
“I think this is just fire for us,” Davis said. “We’re going to just keep working hard and the next step for us is to be successful here and obviously win a couple of games and go to the championship series. That’s our goal.
“I think, for the future of Auburn baseball, we know what it takes to get here and what it’s going to take to be successful the next time we are here.”