Only The Start Of The Baseball Mission For WVU
By Matt Keller
West Virginia’s baseball team, among the first teams out during the 2016 NCAA Tournament selections, turned that disappointment into a season-long motivation that spurred the school to its first ever at-large bid, and snapped more than two decades of postseason drought, as the Mountaineers were a No. 2 seed in the Winston-Salem region.
That appears to be just the beginning for one of college baseball’s emerging programs, and a team that overcame injuries that decimated its starting pitching rotation to finally break through in a big way.
“If you’ve seen all of our t-shirts this year, the back of them says, ‘We’re On A Mission,’” WVU head coach Randy Mazey said. “I felt like we should have already played in the NCAA Tournament at least one of the last couple of years because I thought we were deserving and didn’t get it. I felt like we played with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder the whole season because of that. We felt like we got snubbed. Whether we did or not, we felt that way and we played that way and I think that came through.”
Loud and clear. The Mountaineers went 36-26 overall, 12-12 in the Big 12 and finished fourth in the toughest RPI league in the country. They took two of three games from No. 3 TCU in Morgantown, stole a series from No. 10 Baylor on the road, and split four games against No. 4 Texas Tech, the eventual conference champion. WVU finished with a winning record versus ranked foes (including crushing defending national champion Coastal Carolina twice), swept Pitt and went a combined 6-2 against Maryland, Marshall, Virginia Tech and Penn State.
It all added to a top 20 RPI and a No. 2 regional seed in the NCAA Tournament, where WVU trounced the Terps twice and pushed top-seed and host Wake Forest before eventually bowing out to close one of the most captivating seasons in school history.
“Our job as coaches, our job as parents, is to make memories for these kids,” Mazey said. “And they will take the memory of playing in the NCAA Tournament and carry that with them for the rest of their lives. If you’re in this business for the right reasons, and you are coaching because you love kids, then it was a great season because we made a memory for these kids that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
In typical West Virginia fashion, it wasn’t just that WVU was successful. It was the obstacles overcome that truly defined this gritty, battling group and put the true stamp on the season. The Mountaineers lost two of their three weekend starting pitchers, Connor Dotson and Michael Grove, to season-ending injuries, something that crumpled the rotation and forced three freshmen into emergency starting roles. Also gone after just 16 games was leading hitter Marquis Inman, who suffered torn knee ligaments in March. Those injuries should have ended any thoughts of reaching the NCAAs, let alone being among the top half of the field. But the Mountaineers have never been big on letting others define them, or the expectation of what is possible.
“Three out of the four games (at the NCAA Tournament) we started freshmen (pitchers),” Mazey said. “We started four freshman in the conference tournament, pitching-wise. Those are guys we didn’t even count on pitching this year because we had Grove and Connor Dotson and Carter Camp and Jake Potock. Then take Marquis Inman out of our line-up, who was still our leading hitter (with a .351 average). If you take four pitchers and a middle of the order hitter off anybody’s team for the rest of the year, they are not sitting where we are. When that happens, though, it’s next man up.”
It was the likes of Kade Strowd, Isaiah Kearns, Sam Kessler, Riley Trout and Alek Manoah who capitalized on the opportunities. All five were true freshmen, and only Manoah, a top 50 signee, was projected to see major innings this season. But Strowd appeared in 17 games with eight starts, throwing 45 innings. Kearns went 5-0 in eight starts, Kessler was ultra-dependable with the team’s lowest ERA at 2.61, and Trout struck out 12 in 17 innings. Manoah? He was the team’s emotional leader at times, setting the tone with his 6-foot-6 size and penchant for throwing inside.
“His competitiveness, that guy hates to lose,” Mazey said of Manoah, a native of Miami, Fla. “He will give you a free base, but I think the team responds to his competitiveness. Even when he doesn’t pitch that great, I think the team piggybacks on how hard he is trying and how competitive he is. That guy hates to lose worse than anybody else in the dugout, and the team responds to that more than if he’d strike everybody out. When you stand in the box against Manoah, you have as good a chance to get hit as you have to get a hit.”
West Virginia rode that tenacity all season, even when the Mountaineers were down 4-0 in the sixth inning of an NCAA Tournament elimination game against Maryland. WVU scored eight unanswered runs, including a four-run eighth inning, and rode Jackson Sigman’s lights-out relief effort to an 8-5 victory to advance to the regional final versus Wake Forest. It was among the feel-good moments of the season for Sigman, along with Jackson Cramer one of two seniors who helped build the program to this point.
“It was an incredible feeling,” said Sigman, who stymied the Terps for 4.2 innings, striking out seven and allowing just one run in relief. “It’s something we have always worked towards, always wanted to get to. It was an unbelievable feeling. That’s all I could ask for, just the chance for us to keep playing, keep trying to get to one more game.
“Coach Mazey came to us about two months into the season and said we would get to this point if we gave a lot of effort and kept playing and didn’t take any pitch or any play off,” added the senior side-armer from Austin, Texas. “I can full-heartedly say that to the last out, we were competing at the plate, on the mound, had different guys step up. It was an incredible season and I think it’s very indicative of the team that we had and the guys step up who will be on the roster coming back for next year, too.”
It was Sigman who overcame arguably more than any player, going from a midseason struggle to the most dependable player out of the bullpen after a mechanical adjustment.
“West Virginia baseball is totally a family to me,” he said. “Coming from a junior college you never know how you are going to be received and what’s to be expected. But coach Mazey and all the staff and players took me in and it was incredible. There is a vision you are sold on and being a part of that vision and seeing that vision come true and getting to this point is a phenomenal feeling. Coming from when we went 0-2 in the Big 12 Tournament my first season and being a seven seed in that to where we are a two seed in an NCAA regional has been unbelievable.”
Cramer had two hits, an RBI and scored a pair of runs in the win over Maryland, which advanced West Virginia to its third regional final in school history, and first since 1984. The Mountaineers were again down early, but kept plugging away against the Demon Deacons before falling 12-8 to end the season.
“There were games we could have lost and we came back and won,” said Cramer, who was the only senior on this year’s roster besides Sigman. “I feel like that’s kind of what we do. We keep fighting and I think that’s what has gotten us to this point. We keep fighting and scoring runs late in games and keep playing. That’s just how we play. It’s all we have known for three or four years now.”
The display was so impressive that Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter called the Mountaineers the toughest team his group had played all season.
“They’re just such a well coached, gutty ball club,” Walter said. “I don’t think we played a team this year that was tougher than they were and they just kept coming and coming and coming.”
And in the process left a lasting impression on the college baseball world.
“I thought we had a chance to win,” Mazey said. “That’s all we could ask, to have a chance to win it at the end, and I thought we did. We kept answering them. I think we showed that we are not just happy to be here. We came to win it and keep the season going and that was the mission the whole season. We took some steps, and I think you can watch out for the Mountaineers in the future because I think we are here to stay.”
Especially with the number of returning players. Just Sigman, Cramer and Kyle Davis, a junior who was drafted in the 15th round by the Houston Astros, are gone, while the memories of this year will be carried not just by the upperclassmen, but by the program as a whole as it looks to yet again build on past seasons of success.
“The thing that stood out most to me was that we lost two of our best pitchers and we had other guys step up and replace them to get us where we were at,” Cramer said. “It’s pretty incredible. At the time, we didn’t expect that. But it was good to see that play out over time. It was fun to watch happen. West Virginia baseball has been a part of us and is a part of us. It’s special. We will definitely watch and support in years to come. You make a lot of friends that mean more than just baseball, and over the years, that’s the most important part.”
This story was part of the recent issue of the Blue & Gold News. You can purchase a subscription to the Blue & Gold News magazine and the website, BlueGoldNews.com, at http://bluegoldnews.com/membership-account/membership-levels/