WSU baseball coach Todd Butler previews 2019 season
Wichita State isn’t where Mason O’Brien started his baseball career, but it’s fitting that it’s with the Shockers he’ll finish it.
The O’Brien name holds a special place in Shocker lore, as Mason has several familial ties to the program. His uncle, Charlie O’Brien, is a WSU legend and went on to win a World Series in a 15-year Major League career as a catcher. Another uncle, Erik Sonberg, was WSU’s ace during its first appearance in the College World Series in 1982. He also has two cousins, Chris O’Brien and Tim Kelly, who played baseball for WSU.
After stops at Oklahoma State and Cowley College, Mason O’Brien finally found his place at Wichita State last year. The senior first basemen will play his final games at Eck Stadium this weekend, as the Shockers (22-26, 6-12 AAC) start a three-game American Athletic Conference series against No. 8 East Carolina (37-11, 16-2 AAC) starting 6 p.m. Friday.
“Wichita State is more than just a university and a school to me,” O’Brien said. “It’s part of my family tradition. It’s not where I started my career, but it’s where I ended up, and it was meant to be for me to come to Wichita State and follow in the footsteps of the family that was here before me.”
O’Brien admitted it was a little daunting to come to the same program where two of his uncles are all-time players.
After logging 30 starts last season with the Shockers, O’Brien has regained a starting job at first base lately with WSU, and coach Todd Butler’s confidence in him has led to a four-game hitting streak. Maybe O’Brien’s highlight of his WSU career came last Sunday when he belted a pair of home runs to help end a losing streak in a 12-5 win at Connecticut.
On the season, O’Brien has made 33 starts and has a .283 batting average with 19 runs scored, 11 runs batted in, 11 extra-base hits and a .394 on-base percentage.
“I know it’s pretty hard because I had such big shoes to fill, but I’ve been trying the best that I can,” O’Brien said. “I’ve been doing everything I can to help the team. We had a tough spell there for awhile, so the biggest thing for me was helping us get the win. We know we have the talent and the ability to do that. We know it’s there, so we just have to keep working hard and staying focused.”
As one of four seniors on WSU’s roster this season, O’Brien has had to develop into more of a leader for the Shockers.
The season was going well in early April, as a dramatic come-from-behind win at Tulane pushed WSU to 18-12 overall and 3-1 in conference play. But the next month saw the Shockers go into a swoon, losing 14 of 16 games to fall six games below .500.
O’Brien has never had to deal with losing like that. His senior year in high school at Owasso (Okla.), O’Brien was the best player on an undefeated state championship team. His first two years at Oklahoma State saw the Cowboys host a NCAA regional and make it to Omaha for the College World Series. Even at Cowley College, O’Brien was on a team that made it to the Junior College World Series and finished third.
“It’s definitely frustrating not putting up the wins that you hope for and work hard for, especially when you know that you have the talent,” O’Brien said. “But our team chemistry is really good and (the seniors) have been working on keeping them positive. We’re still working hard every day, and I’ve been trying to push those guys in the weight room and in the cages.”
O’Brien can sense the frustration outside of the program with the fan base that yearns for the Shockers to return to the winning ways like when his uncles were playing.
But after spending the last two years with Butler and seeing the talent he has brought in, O’Brien is optimistic about the future.
“I think the old Wichita State, that entire mindset of winning is starting to burn back into the program,” O’Brien said. “There’s a lot of bright things coming for this team. There’s so much talent here, and we have a really strong freshmen class that has a lot of good arms and position players.”
This weekend will be particularly emotional for O’Brien because these last few weeks are likely the final few of his baseball career.
Instead of continuing in baseball, O’Brien has decided to pursue a career as a physician assistant. He is set to graduate with a degree in biology this spring, then will apply to programs to complete a two-year master’s physician assistant program.
“It’s something that I really enjoy and a career I’m really passionate about, just like I’m passionate about baseball,” O’Brien said. “I haven’t really thought much about (the future) because the season goes by so fast, but I’m sure it will be emotional this weekend when I step on that turf and see all of my family there. It’s a special time here and I’m glad that this is where I ended up.”