A Tip Of The Cap – And The Cup – To Mountaineer Baseball
By Matt Keller
Pop a cold one this Memorial Day weekend, Mountaineer fans.
Because if you were alive the last time West Virginia’s baseball team reached the NCAA Tournament, you’re of legal age. It’s been a long 21 years for WVU, which has occasionally flirted with an at-large bid since joining the Big 12, only to be denied by late season collapses, extra inning defeats, and the midseason slump that has derailed promising campaigns.
The two decades haven’t been all that kind to the program, which was never fully funded until entering the Big 12, and suffered such idignities as chasing down fans to retrieve foul balls and changing into uniforms in the parking lot due to lack of a locker room. The shoestring budget hamstringed all else, and the annual dose of reality hit hard every spring, when the 64-team NCAA Tournament field came and went without the Mountaineers.
It was death and taxes, as they say. That all ends at high noon Monday, when West Virginia’s name will flash across the ESPN2 screen during the selection show – perhaps alongside as high as a No. 2 seed – and put some salve on more than two decades of frustration.
“We went out at the beginning of this year and our slogan was ‘We’re on a mission’ to prove to everybody out there that we belong in the NCAA Tournament and I can’t imagine that we’re not in,” head coach Randy Mazey said after WVU was eliminated in the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament on Saturday. “I’ve been in this position before and haven’t made it but we deserve to be in and I believe we’ll be playing next week.”
Flanked by state natives in Jimmy Galusky and Shane Ennis, Mazey then addressed the historical meaning of it all.
“These guys will tell you growing up as little kids in the state, to my knowledge West Virginia has never ever in over 100 years of baseball gotten an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, so this could be our first,” Mazey said. “This team will go down in history and these two guys are a huge part of it. As little kids they’ll tell you that they knew Mountaineer baseball, they know what our university is all about and what we stand for, how much pride there is around the entire state of West Virginia and the athletic program.”
And now, finally, the baseball program. WVU shredded its single season attendance record this year, drawing 40,616 fans to Mon County Ballpark during the 22-game stretch. That broke the previous mark of 40,390 set a season ago, that coming during a 30-game home slate. The 2017 average of 1,846 per game, then, was 500 more per home contest than West Virginia drew last year. Of the college students there, perhaps a handful were alive the last time the Mountaineers reached the postseason.
“It’s kind of a weird feeling really,” said Ennis, a Romney native. “I mean, I was talking to somebody the other day and I think it’s been 21 years since we’ve been in a regional and I was born in 1996, so I guess the last time we went I was just born.”
Twenty-one years. In 1996, the Chicago Bulls won the fourth of six titles with Michael Jordan, Frasier was in its television prime, and the Macarena and Independence Day were hits. Gas cost $1.22 per gallon, a stamp was 32 cents, and in-state tuition to WVU was less than $1,500 per semester.
West Virginia? It won the Big East Tournament title for an auto-bid to the NCAAs, and beat Tennessee and Georgia Southern before being bounced after consecutive losses to Clemson and the Volunteers. That spurred an enthusiasm that quickly waned, and had bottomed out in the late 2010s.
Now, in year five under Mazey, the Mountaineers have been featured in prime baseball publications like Baseball America and DI Baseball, and become a staple in the RPI top 20 (currently 19th). They were ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 1984, and have become a feel good story across the nation. And they’ve accomplished what they set out to do at the begining of the season, with Mazey acknowledging now it’s time to set new goals.
“When they put this jersey on, they play for each other, they play for the coaches, they play for the administration,” Mazey said. “But these two guys realize more than anybody, they play for millions of fans around the state of West Virginia.”
So cheers, Mountaineers. Well done. On to the next step.