ENID, Okla. — For nearly two decades, Northern Oklahoma College Enid baseball has only known one head coach, Raydon Leaton.
But now, the program will carry on without Leaton at the helm. Leaton was named NOC Enid’s vice president on Thursday.
While the change was made to better suit his family and his career, the decision to leave the Jets’ baseball program was not an easy one.
“Baseball has been my life,” Leaton said. “(My wife) Stacie and I both have committed most of our life to the game of baseball. The new role will be a new challenge for us … Jets baseball will always have a place in my life, and her life as well.”
Every win, every tournament championship and, most recently, its the first NJCAA Division II World Series championship was realized under Leaton’s watch. He helped build the program from the ground up.
However, Leaton’s impact on NOC Enid’s program goes far deeper than numbers or trophies.
“I think the impact goes way beyond what people actually see,” said NOC athletic director Jeremy Hise.
'I owe it all to him'
Bernardo Estrada didn’t have a single offer to play college baseball.
After graduating high school, Estrada and his coach did all they could to get him exposure. But in a small, Texas panhandle town like Perryton, exposure is hard to come by. Estrada tried to create his own by playing for the Woodward Travelers, but there was no luck.
That is until Raydon Leaton came to watch him play.
Estrada met Leaton at a tournament in Woodward. As they spoke, Leaton asked the typical questions, one of which was, “Have you talked with any other colleges?”
“Coach,” Estrada said to Leaton, "I don’t have anything else. If you’re offering me something right now, I will take it right now. On the spot.”
Leaton always preached to his players about the importance of staying prepared in case their name is ever called. Estrada was the embodiment of that message. He didn’t start as a freshman but when a teammate got dehydrated during the World Series tournament, Estrada came in and eventually made the all-tournament team.
Sometimes people can miss on talent, Leaton said.
“And we were fortunate enough that he was a part of the program.”
Estrada returned his sophomore year as the Jets’ leadoff hitter and earned a scholarship to play at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.
Estrada was the first person in his family to graduate high school and pursue a college education.
“If it wasn’t for (Leaton),” Estrada said. “I may have just stopped playing … I owe it all to him and the staff because I never would have had that opportunity. I may have just stayed in Perryton and never looked back.”
Recently graduated Jet E.J. Taylor said he experienced a similar situation out of high school. NOC Enid and Leaton did for Taylor what few other schools would do. They believed in him.
“He believed in me from the jump,” Taylor said.
Taylor played both seasons and started full-time his sophomore year. In both seasons, Taylor was a Top 15 home run hitter, leading the Jets with 15 home runs this past season.
“There were plenty of chances where he could have switched up or … believed in somebody else,” Taylor said. “But I can’t thank him enough for that.
Setting the tone
Jon Kissinger came to NOC Enid during the program’s first year of existence. He’s known Leaton as a player, a graduate assistant, a business partner and now, as a friend.
“I’ve learned a considerable amount about baseball, but also about life as well,” Kissinger said.
Kissinger said the Jets took ownership of their status as the new program on the block. They, along with their new head coach, wanted to set the tone for the program’s future and did so by making it to their first World Series during Year 2.
Before earning a World Series berth, NOC Enid was trying to avoid elimination in the regional tournament. A team meeting in the NOC Enid dorms rallied the club and helped NOC Enid win the tournament.
Kissinger's memory of that moment remains vivid.
“I can’t step inside those dorms now and not remember that one night where we all kind of came together and realized, ‘Hey, we’ve got the talent to do this, we’ve got the coaches to do this.’”
The Jets won their first game against a Pearl River club filled with Division I talent, an outcome that likely wasn’t supposed to happen, Leaton said. The Jets were eventually knocked out by Parkland with a two-game defeat by the Cobras.
“That seems to be our M.O., losing to somebody twice in the World Series,” Leaton said.
After the Jets won their first NJCAA Division II World Series championship this past season, D.J. Calvert sent a text to his head coach, thanking him for helping the sophomore mature as a player and as a man.
“His response was, ‘That wasn’t me,’” Calvert recalled. “‘That was you.’”
Calvert wasn’t the first player without a handle on his maturity of the responsibilities of a college athlete to walk through NOC Enid’s clubhouse. Leaton never let up on Calvert.
Chance Tuttle, who played for NOC Enid during the 2007 and 2008 seasons, said Leaton’s tough love is what attracts players to him.
“Yes, he’s tough and demanding but guys love him for that,” Tuttle said.
Calvert was asked if a particular memory of his time playing under Leaton sticks out.
“You mean between all the times he got onto me?” Calvert asked in jest.
When he looks back on his time at NOC Enid, he thinks back to how his relationship with Leaton grew along with his maturity.
“He will go on to do great things,” Leaton said. “If I had a little bit of a part in that, then that’s rewarding enough.”
Even though his new job as NOC Enid’s vice president is better for his family, taking the job was a difficult decision to make.
“When this opportunity came up, the timing was good," Leaton said. "There aren't many coaches that end their career with a win and I was fortunate enough to do that.”
When the news became official on Thursday, Leaton’s players, past and present, were elated. They were thrilled for him and understood the reason for the move.
“It's awesome for him,” Calvert said. “I know his hours are going to be a little better. No doubt he is going to be around the baseball field 24-7 anyways.”
When asked about how he would define his career, Leaton was quick to respond.
“The relationships I’ve had with almost 1,000 players that have been in my program, that’s the most important thing for me,” he said. “The fact that I’ve tried to give them a path to success not only on the baseball field but in life.
“The championships, the wins, all that stuff? That's going to come secondary to the relationships that I’ve had with my players and coaches.”