In February, Kyle Nobach was hobbling around Surprise, Arizona, on a bum knee, fearing he was going to lose a second straight college baseball season to knee surgery.
Four months later Nobach was in Omaha, Nebraska, hitting a home run at the College World Series to help the Oregon State University Beavers on their way to winning a national championship.
This year Oregon State became known for overcoming all obstacles, leaving a long trail of opponents in the dust as the Beavers made a habit of winning games when trailing or facing elimination. And Nobach, the pride of Marysville Pilchuck High School, personified that characteristic with the way he was able to overcome repeated injuries.
“Going through two surgeries and then wearing that uniform means so much to me,” Nobach said. “To finish how it did and to bring the trophy home, it’s something I can’t even put into words. I don’t think I’ve come down from it yet.”
Nobach, a senior outfielder, was a key contributor to Oregon State winning the third national title in program history. He started all eight of the Beavers’ games at the College World Series between designed hitter and left field, batting .286 (8-for-28) with three runs and five RBI. Among those hits was a three-run home run that was a decisive blow in Oregon State’s 14-5 comeback victory over Washington in an elimination game.
“Obviously hitting a homer at the College World Series is something not a lot of people can say,” Nobach said when asked about his favorite moment from Omaha. “Growing up in Washington and having it come against the Huskies, that was something special. I wasn’t trying to hit a home run, I was just trying to put it in play. Luckily the wind wasn’t blowing hard, it had been holding a lot of balls in. Running those bases it was like the stadium was empty, I didn’t hear a thing, it was silence. I was so in the moment and so focused, and I was so happy we came out after that (four-hour) rain delay and battled to fight another day.”
And it was particularly sweet for a player who battled a year-and-a-half just to put himself in that position.
In February of 2017, Nobach, a starter the previous two years, was all set for a triumphant senior season with an Oregon State team considered a favorite to win a national championship. But during preparations for the season Nobach was feeling pain in his left knee when he ran, and after trying to battle through it he had it looked at and was told there was something wrong. Nobach made the difficult decision to undergo arthroscopic surgery, where it was discovered he was missing a quarter-sized piece of cartilage, causing bone-on-bone contact. The repair meant Nobach’s season was done — just three days before Oregon State’s opening game.
“That was really tough for me,” Nobach said. “The day I found out I wasn’t going to play I sat next to coach (Pat) Casey and was crying my eyes out. He asked me why I was so upset, and I said it was because we were winning a national championship this year.”
The Beavers, despite being the top seed, ended up falling short at the College World Series. Meanwhile Nobach, who took a redshirt season, was furiously working his way back to full strength. The year off gave him plenty of time to get stronger in the weight room, helping him transform from largely being a singles hitter into more of a power hitter. By the time January arrived Nobach was feeling 100 percent.
But just days before the Beavers departed for Surprise in February for the first two weeks of their season, Nobach’s right knee began locking up. Suddenly Nobach was looking at the possibility of repeat heartbreak from his 2017 season.
“I was sitting in the doctor’s office and he was telling me all this stuff, basically that it was the same surgery but on the other leg,” Nobach recalled. “In my mind I’d already been through it and I knew the pain and time it took to recover. I didn’t want to do it, and it took some convincing from our athletic trainer and the doctor.”
Nobach played in Oregon State’s early games, strictly as a designed hitter and pinch hitter. Then after nine games he elected to have arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, during which some loose pieces of cartilage were cleaned out. Two weeks after the surgery Nobach was back in the lineup, hitting a homer in his first game back against Washington.
Nobach ended the season batting .299 in 117 at bats, slugging six homers and driving in 31 runs. He had a .538 slugging percentage and .413 on-base percentage, both career highs, despite never getting back to full strength following his surgery.
And overcoming his injuries meant Nobach was in left field when the final out was recorded that made the Beavers the national champs.
“I threw my glove and hat in the air and ran towards Nick Madrigal (Oregon State’s second baseman) and those guys around short,” Nobach said. “I don’t know what we did, if we chest bumped or hugged. Then I saw everyone dogpiling at the mound and I jumped as high as I could, hugging all my teammates.
“It was truly a special moment, an emotional moment,” Nobach continued. “This team has been through an incredible amount of adversity together. To persevere and come out on top and bring the trophy back to Corvallis, that’s something that will last a lifetime.”