For the second time in Southern Miss pitching coach Christian Ostrander’s four-year span, he has guided the Golden Eagles’ pitching staff in leading the country in the category of strikeout-to-walk ratio.
That means that Southern Miss’ pitchers’ are the best at racking up strikeouts and least likely to give up a free base on a walk, which is critical for any pitcher. As a staff, Southern Miss has averaged 4.54 strikeouts for every walk and is .65 higher than the second-best team in the country, which is Middle Tennessee at 3.89.
In Ostrander’s first season in 2018, Southern Miss finished the year ranked at No. 2. In 2019, USM dipped to No. 57, but in the shortened 2020 season, the Golden Eagles were near the top and ranked as the 14th best in the nation. Not to mention, Ostrander helped former starter Nick Sandlin receive several National Pitcher of the Year awards.
The secret of Ostrander’s success? His ability to develop a pitcher’s mental toughness on the mound and shaping his pitching staff’s identity.
“It’s not a magic drill you can do,” Ostrander said. “What do you want your identity to be as a staff? I talk to them about that all the time. You have to know your identity as a pitcher. Who you are and how you are going to get outs, but as a staff, we should have an identity.
“I want my identity, from a pride standpoint, that we are the ones on attack and going after you. We are going to come after you. We are not afraid to give up hits or give up a home run.”
Naturally, it was tough shoes to fill for head coach Scott Berry after former pitching coach Mike Federico, who left to become the head coach at Louisiana-Monroe. Federico had significant success as he coached four conference pitchers of the year. Yet, the results haven’t lied in Ostrander’s ability to take over the role and make an immediate impact.
“When (Federico) left, I had always targeted (Ostrander) as somebody that I would go after if Fed ever left,” Berry said. “In my mind, he was the guy I would have liked to have. His morals lined up with mine in what we are trying to teach here. I think he is a man of high character and a model of what we want our guys to become with their own families. We are both family people. I think that’s important in the development of the student-athlete at Southern Miss.
“What I look for in a player both on and off the field, I saw in Oz as a teacher both as a coach and as a life lesson teacher.”
How Ostrander found his way to Southern Miss is much different than most would expect because the first-ever meeting between Ostrander and Berry turned out much differently than the future would dictate.
In December of 1991, Ostrander was a senior pitcher in high school and had scheduled several tryouts for multiple Mississippi junior colleges that winter. One of those was for Meridian Community College, where Berry was an assistant coach at the time. However, Ostrander had been living in New York and had not had the chance to pitch a bullpen outside in quite some time. The tryout didn’t exactly go the way Ostrander had hoped and Berry passed on him.
“I threw a bullpen for him and I thought I didn’t look too impressive,” Ostrander said. “There was three feet of snow in New York at that time and I hadn’t been outside throwing in a while.”
Years later as the two reminisced on their first meeting, Berry has even joked that the tryout interrupted his deer hunting schedule.
“It’s been brought up,” Ostrander said. “He remembered it. He didn’t remember a whole lot about me, nor did I remember a whole lot about him. He remembers the day and being out there. He jokes that I was that guy that came and tried out on a Saturday and had to get him out of the woods and interfered with his hunting. (That) was told after the fact.”
As fate would have it and baseball being a small word, not playing for Meridian led to Ostrander becoming acquainted with another future boss of his, Southern Miss Director of Athletics Jeremy McClain, who was then a teammate.
After spending two seasons at Mississippi Delta Community College, Ostrander signed with Delta State and was part of several successful seasons with the Statesmen. McClain was more than just a teammate for Ostrander, but was also one of the first players he would ever coach.
Both Ostrander and McClain were key for Delta State’s 1996 season, with the Statesmen reaching the College World Series and finishing 53-8 that year. Ostrander was the team’s go-to reliever and made 23 appearances that season, with McClain being one of the key starters of the pitching rotation.
“He was a key part of two really good teams that were ranked No.1 in the country for much of those two years,” McClain said. “He was a great teammate and a fierce competitor. He was a guy that was always working at that craft, trying to be better and always developing something as a pitcher that could help him. He was very successful. He was a bullpen guy and really our go-to guy.
“What jumps out to me is his passion for wanting to be the best. He is going to pay attention to detail and push the guys around him to be better. He is going to set high expectations. He is passionate about what he does and does it in a great way. He is smart about how he does it. He handles the mental aspect of the game as good as anybody I have ever been around, whether it be as a player or coach. I think he helps that staff or anyone he is working with maximize their potential because he is so good at the details and mental approach of the game.”
After Ostrander finished his two years of eligibility, he became a graduate assistant for Delta State. But even becoming a coach was something Ostrander had not originally planned. In fact, it didn’t occur to him until his senior year of college over the winter break.
“During my senior year of college in 1996, I’ll never forget it. I was home in Texas during the Christmas holidays,” Ostrander said. “I was engaged and going to get married. We were kind of young getting married after college. I was fixing to graduate on time at Delta State with a degree in business. During that Christmas vacation, a lot of reality hit me, and it hit me of what am I going to do? I did a lot of soul searching and praying, and I realized that I love baseball.
“I was no pro prospect, and the next best thing was coaching. I went back to school in January, right before the semester started, and I asked the Dean of Education ‘What do I need to do if I want to coach?’ I was told to go into education. I’ll never forget him looking at me, and he said, ‘Young man, you realize you are going to graduate on time with a business degree?’ I said, ‘Yep, I don’t want to do that. I want to coach.’”
After spending two years as a pitcher, with the last game of his career actually coming in relief for McClain, Ostrander became a graduate assistant. He later hired as a coach to help with the pitching staff, which was McClain’s senior year in 1999.
“Jeremy was awesome,” Ostrander said. “He knew what he was as a pitcher. He was like another coach with me. He helped me with the other guys and stuff like that. There wasn’t a whole lot of coaching I had to do with him other than just get him through games. He was a pretty good one. He had a very good work ethic, was driven, obviously, and competitive. It was fun to have him on my staff in those early days of coaching.”
McClain went 15-0 and tossed 101 strikeouts in that season and is still Delta State’s career record holder in strikeouts, appearances, victories, and innings pitched. In that span, as his teammate, McClain saw Ostrander’s mental toughness on the mound that later transpired into his coaching style.
“It’s hard to explain when you are in the middle of it,” McClain said. “Like any sport, the mental approach to competing, handling adversity, how you approach each pitch, and just being able to get into a place mentally where you can be your best and not be distracted. I call it mental discipline and mental toughness. It’s getting to that place where you can overcome whatever comes your way and putting yourself in the best position possible. I think that’s who he is, and I think that’s how he was as a player.”
Success continued to follow Ostrander; after assistant coaching stints at Delta State and Arkansas State and a two-year head coaching stop at Gulfport High School, Ostrander became the head coach at Jones College and solidified himself into Mississippi baseball history. Ostrander posted a 255-109 overall record in seven seasons and in 2011 finished in second place at the NCJAA Division II World Series.
At the same time, Berry and Ostrander’s relationship began to develop. Berry admits that at this point in Ostrander’s career, he noticed him as a potential addition for coaching staff in the future.
Ostrander then joined former Southern Miss assistant coach Lane Burroughs at Louisiana Tech, where he helped the Bulldogs break several school pitching records. However, after two seasons, Ostrander wanted to return to the Hattiesburg area and has brought that same success since.
That success stems from Ostrander’s own pitching philosophy and the ability to stay confident, which is more so his own life’s philosophy. Ostrander’s understanding of his identity and confidence is his own skill or “stuff.”
“I’ve changed a lot over the years as a pitching coach,” Ostrander said. “What I did 20 years ago, I’m sure not doing now. You have to evolve a little bit, and a lot has changed. My pitchers will tell you that when we start in the fall that there is a premium in trusting their stuff and attack the plate. We are not going to be afraid of contact. You have got to be the aggressor. You have to know how to use your stuff over the plate. If you have the best stuff in the world and don’t know how to use it over the plate, then it’s irrelevant.”