The University of Texas baseball team did not write the ending it intended to at the College World Series, and if the bottom line is your thing, there you go. At Texas, isn’t it all about that? Life in the fast lane, championship or bust, you name it.

Only thing is, sometimes it’s about more than that, and every once in a while—not often, but sometimes—a game that will be officially recorded as defeat can feel like something special. Sometimes, all those clichés about character and honor feel real. Maybe that’s how it’ll be for these Longhorns.

They deserve it, even though a walk-off single ended their week in Omaha Saturday night with a 4–3 loss to Mississippi State in the NCAA semifinals. But even in their disappointment, the Longhorns seemed to understand they’d had a week they’ll remember fondly.

UT began the postseason tournament with the number two overall seed and arrived in Omaha as the highest-seeded team still playing. Then they promptly fell on their face, losing their College World Series opener to Mississippi State with a 2–1 loss that included 21 strikeouts by Texas hitters. That defeat—embarrassing, eye-opening—slid the Longhorns into the event’s elimination bracket, where every game comes with win-or-go-home stakes. Of the previous 39 national champions, 35 had won their first game. Head coach David Pierce had declared that anything less than a national championship would be unacceptable, and suddenly Texas was fighting to stay alive.

“We scratched and clawed our way back,” center fielder Mike Antico said. “We came up just a little bit short, but this team battled and fought. But I’m happy for this team. I really am.”

In the end, the legacy of the Longhorns’ run in this College World Series will likely be that they put Texas firmly back in the national championship conversation. That’s a tribute to Pierce and a collection of players who weren’t the Longhorns’ usual array of four- and five-star recruits. Antico was a grad transfer from St. John’s. Designated hitter Ivan Melendez spent a couple of seasons at Odessa College hoping to catch the eye of a major program. First baseman Zach Zubia signed with Tulane to play for Pierce, then followed the coach to Austin despite being required to sit out a season to gain eligibility.

Don’t be mistaken, though. This was not an outmanned Texas team, and the Longhorns were a joy to watch this season, with a core built around great defense and deep starting pitching. They cruised to UT’s thirty-seventh appearance in the College World Series—more than any other team in the nation—and they were playing for a seventh national championship.

But because the Longhorns haven’t won the big one since 2005, got bounced from the College World Series after two quick losses in 2018, and didn’t even qualify for the Big 12 postseason tournament in 2019, there was a sense that Texas might be a long way from regaining its previous luster. That would not be true.

This season, Texas won fifty games for the twenty-fifth time in school history and rolled into Omaha having gone 5–0 in regional and super regional play while outscoring opponents 49–12. And Texas had the talent to win it. All three of the Longhorns’ starting pitchers—Ty Madden, Pete Hansen, Tanner Witt—seem destined for the major leagues. Shortstop Trey Faltine leads a defense as good as almost any in the country.

This was a group that played so consistently hard and so unselfishly that Pierce seemed on the verge of tears at times when asked about the intangible stuff. That was especially true after the team was eliminated. “Those guys will be a part of my life the rest of my life,” he said. “You want to just keep doing it with these guys. But I think those guys will always be a part of the rest of my life. I hope so. I hope they feel the same.”

Once Texas had a day off to recover from the embarrassing opening loss to Mississippi State, then the fun began. The Longhorns won three straight elimination games, beginning with an 8–4 victory over Tennessee. And then the fun got weird. Texas players waited out a four-hour rain delay before the first pitch in a 6–2 defeat of Virginia Thursday, in a game that ended just before 1 a.m. Friday.

Back at the ballpark a few hours later, Texas blew a three-run eighth-inning lead against Mississippi State on Friday, but got it right back thanks to Melendez’s three-run, ninth-inning homer. Guess what happened next. Moments after the home run, a two-hour rain delay had the Longhorns back at their hotel well after midnight.

That set up a rubber match against Mississippi State—the teams’ third game against each other in seven days—with a chance to play Vanderbilt in the best-of-three championship on the line. The Longhorns had leads of 2–0 in the second inning and 3–1 in the fifth before their advantage slipped and, eventually, the game did too.

Pierce said he couldn’t have been prouder, and to watch his team persevere was to feel some of what he felt. “The grit, the toughness, the never-give-up mentality, the energy,” he said. “There’s just so many words that you (can use to) describe this group, and they are all positive.”

Speaking of Pierce, the Longhorns have themselves a superstar of a head coach. He displayed just the right touch for managing players, while also running games smartly. The 58-year-old is a baseball lifer in the best sense of the word. He was born in Houston, attended St. Pius X, Wharton Junior College, and the University of Houston. He had head coaching jobs at St. Pius X and then Dobie High School before joining the UH staff as an assistant. He spent eight years as a top assistant to legendary Rice coach Wayne Graham.

But around Houston, Pierce’s reputation is that of a man who loves the game on a deeper level. He coached numerous amateur and summer league teams and seems to have a connection with virtually every Houston-area player of the last three decades. Houston Chronicle reporter Brent Zwerneman wrote a piece about playing for Pierce one summer. “Pierce had the characteristics of a top-shelf coach long before he began assisting Graham,” Zwerneman wrote. “I mean, who conducts exit interviews for an unwieldy summer league team?”

One of Pierce’s longtime friends, Andy Straub, an assistant baseball coach at Houston’s Episcopal High School, told Zwerneman of the most important lesson he’d learned from Pierce. “He could be walking by a batting cage,” Straub said, “and if a kid is in there he’s never seen in his life, coach is going to stop and watch and see if he can help. Something like, ‘Stay back and see the ball a little deeper, and go the other way with it.’ That’s something I learned from him—try and help others any time you can. He’s not only a great coach, but he’s been a great mentor and friend.”

Throughout this season, as the Longhorns passed certain milestones, Pierce would summon everyone associated with the Texas program and thank them for their contributions. Asked to recount one of those meetings during a press conference this month, he said: “I told them that they inspire me. They make me better. They make me want to come to the ballpark and do everything I can to help them.”

Pierce now has Texas positioned to compete for future trips to Omaha and perhaps the school’s first national title since 2005. Next year’s roster boasts a solid core of returning players and a strong recruiting class on the way to Austin. But regardless of what happens next, Pierce is unlikely to forget how proud he felt to coach this team.

 “The future’s bright,” Pierce said. “(These guys) set the standard. This  group started really creating that attitude that we were looking for. … This group has started that true standard that we’re looking for.”