First, and foremost, that message focused on playoffs hopes.
The Wranglers finished 28-28 overall and lost seven of their final eight games, preventing the program from making its second straight postseason appearance.
Odessa College's six returners want to put that last stretch to rest and the team will have to do that in a hurry as the Wranglers open their regular season with No. 17 Navarro College and No. 2 San Jacinto-North, at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. respectively, today at the San Jacinto Tournament of Champions.
"The first game of the season you never know how it's going to shake out," Lay said. "All these are guys are anxious. They are all on level 10. You got to get out the jitters. They have to realize that it's only one of 56 that are going to have this spring.
"Some of these guys are going to get baptized by fire early. It could be a great experience for them. It could be a tough experience for them. The best part is that they have 55 more games to figure it out."
The Wranglers bring back four position players and two pitchers.
Odessa College's returners include sophomore shortstop Masen Hibbler, sophomore second baseman Grant Jones, sophomore center fielder Chase Duncan, sophomore right-handed pitchers Matteo Bocchi, Chandler Casey and redshirt freshman outfielder Wade Raburn.
Hibbler said Odessa College graduated or lost many of its power bats — most notably Jakob Nunez, Tyler Hardie, Koby Claborn and Hunter Douglas — but he believes this team has ability to piece together victories.
The four power bats posted 206 of the team's 406 RBIs and they combined for 72 doubles, 28 home runs and 11 triples. The three returning starters — Hibbler, Jones and Duncan — supplied 31 doubles, 16 triples, 11 home runs and 85 RBIs.
"We have a real scrappy group of guys this year," said Hibbler, who finished with .312 average with eight doubles, four triples, four home runs and 23 RBIs. "We don't stand out in power. We don't stand out on the mound. We are really good at coming together. We have a scrappy bunch and that's what we are going to rely on this year to win ball games."
On the pitching side, Casey began the 2016 campaign as the Wranglers' closer, but eventually made his way to the starting rotation. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound right-handed pitcher said there was a bit of a learning curve during his first season with the Wranglers.
Casey made a team-high 23 appearances with four starts. He had a 5-4 record and one save over 48 innings with a 9.00 ERA and 37 strikeouts.
"When I first got here as a freshman, I was kind of shell-shocked because you find out that a lot more people can play at this level," Casey said. "There's a lot of talent at JUCOs and there's a lot of good players. You find out pretty quick that you are no longer the man you were in high school. It kind of humbles you quick."
One pitcher the Wranglers will need to keep healthy is Bocchi.
The 6-4, 200-pound right-hander was limited to eight appearances — which included six starts — during the 2016 season. Bocchi was sidelined for a large part of the second half due to injury. The Italian pitcher went 3-1 over those eight appearances with a 6.15 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 33.1 innings.
"He has all the talent in the world," Lay said about Bocchi. "He had some arm injuries last year that ended up hurting us. We just need him to stay healthy. Every time out we'd like to think that he's going to give us a chance to win."
Though the returners are expected to play larger roles this season, many of them coming back won't have the added pressure of impressing scouts during the spring. Four of the six returners have inked their letters of intent to four-year universities.
Hibbler and Bocchi have signed to play at the University of Texas. Jones inked with Louisiana Tech and Casey signed with Lubbock Christian. Hibbler and Casey agreed a weight had been lifted off both of their shoulders.
"I was in the same situation my senior year of high school when I committed here," Hibbler said. "Now, I can go out and play. I can relax, play the way I know I play rather than worry about this guy on this day or this guy on this day. That's what the fall was for. Now, it's about going out and winning ball games with the team."
Casey added: "It makes me feel more relaxed on the field and that's as much relaxation as I need out there. I feel calm. I feel better that I have a place where I know I'm going, but I'm still going to give it my all out there every day and work as hard as I can."
Article by Royal McGregor