Reviewing The Mountaineer Year: Part III
MORGANTOWN — As we say goodbye to 2019, we will remember it as a year of transition, a year of joy, a year of sorrow, if not the most successful year in West Virginia’s sports history, at least year of big news stories.
This is the final of a three-part series reviewing the 2019 WVU sports year. Previously in the series:
Now, a look at the biggest stories of the year.
No. 1: Changing of the guard at the top of the football program
The Holgorsen era ended with a three-game losing streak, including a lackluster 34-18 loss to Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl that left the Mountaineers with an 8-4 record despite the presence of quarterback Will Grier.
“I want to thank Coach Holgorsen for his eight years at West Virginia. We wish him and his family all the best at the University of Houston. Our national search for his replacement has already begun, and I know it will be a successful one,” said athletic director Shane Lyons.
The search was a brief one, Lyons had his eyes on an up and coming young coach at Troy in Alabama, Neal Brown, naming him head coach just three days later.
Brown had compiled a 35-16 record, including 3-0 in bowl games at Troy, posting a 31-8 record (.795) over the past three seasons, tying for the highest winning percentage nationally among non-Power 5 schools. Troy won 17 of its last 20 games and 22 of its last 26 under Brown.
“When I started this national search, I learned very quickly that he checked all the boxes of what I was looking for in our next football coach,” Lyons said. “There is no question that the Mountaineers are West Virginia’s team, and I know our fans are going to love his energy, passion, work ethic and excitement that he is going to bring to our program.”
“We will work hard, play hard and do things the right way to make the people from the great state of West Virginia proud of their program. That will be a foundational element of our culture. I can’t wait to meet our team and get to work!” Brown enthusiastically said.
He brought with him a completely new culture for his football team, building a family atmosphere and stretching its reach out into the community, winning over the fan base despite having to settle with a 5-7 record while failing to reach a bowl game.
No. 2: Bob Huggins suffers through his worst season but it ends with hope
Sometimes even the best of coaches miscast their teams and so it was in 2018-19 for Bob Huggins, the fourth winningest active coach in NCAA basketball.
There were high hopes for the team but there were early indications that things weren’t right. His top recruit, Derek Culver, opened the year on suspension and the Mountaineers lost their home opener, a game they should have won, then dropped their third game against Western Kentucky.
Still, WVU went into the new year with an 8-4 record and were optimistic when Big 12 play began but it came apart immediately with a three-point loss at home to No. 11 Texas Tech, a team that would go to the NCAA final before losing to Virginia.
That grew into a five-game losing streak and 13 losses in 15 games as the team came undone. Eventually, Huggins would have to kick both Esa Ahmad and Wesley Harris off the team.
They had already played the bulk of the year without two other starters — Sagaba Konate, who would enter the NBA draft but go undrafted after the season — and Beetle Bolden.
The dismissals of Ahmad and Harris seemed to fix the chemistry as the Mountaineers as they beat TCU in a tense triple overtime game.
“I told (the team) yesterday that we aren’t giving up, that’s not in my DNA and there’s a lot of them, I don’t think it’s in their DNA,” Huggins said. “We need to make a run here at the end of the year, and then, we need to go to the (Big 12) tournament and win.”
They closed by winning five of their last nine games, including a victory over Texas Tech in the Big 12 tournament, but went out with a whimper, losing to Coastal Carolina, 109-91, in the CBI Tournament.
3. Team of the Year: West Virginia’s baseball team
It was a magical season for Coach Randy Mazey’s baseball squad and while it ended with a heartbreaking defeat in an NCAA Regional played at Mon County Ballpark, it could not erase all the thrills and what had been accomplished.
The awarding of the Regional to Morgantown for the first time since 1955 was the cherry on top of a 38-22 season.
The first sign that this would be a magical year came when WVU upset No. 3 Oregon, 2-0, behind right-hander Kade Strowd, giving the Mountaineers a victory over the highest-ranked team the program had ever beaten.
A month later, with a record crowd of 3,487 on hand at Mon County Ballpark, WVU beat Backyard Brawl rival Pitt, 5-4
“We put a good product on the field tonight,” Mazey said after the game. “Our kids are fun to watch. We run, we smash baseballs, pitchers attack the zone and it was a great competition. Pitt came out here and gave us all we could handle tonight, but we have had a tendency to score runs late in the game in our park. This is starting to turn into a pretty big home field advantage, and the record crowd had a lot to do with that tonight.”
There would be more record crowds and more heroics.
Perhaps the biggest heroic came when Darius Hill hit a three-run, walk-off home run to defeat TCU in early May as the Mountaineers set themselves up for a run in the Big 12 Tournament.
Before the Big 12 Tournament started, however, Alex Manoah was unanimously named the Big 12’s Pitcher of the Year and Mazey was selected the league’s Coach of the Year.
The Mountaineers’ made a strong run in the Big 12 Tournament, losing in the final to No. 11 Oklahoma State, 5-2.
Manoah, junior center fielder Brandon White, sophomore second baseman Tyler Doanes and freshman right-hander Ryan Bergert were named to the Big 12 All-Tournament Team.
Shortly thereafter the NCAA named Morgantown the site for a baseball regional for the first time ince 1955.
With a record 4,355 fans looking on, WVU won the opener of the Regional over Fordham, 6-2.
“Great win,” Mazey said. “That’s a stadium just full of energy tonight from the first pitch to the last. When you have that much energy in the stadium, you’re exhausted when it’s over. I’m exhausted, and I can imagine how these guys feel.”
But West Virginia ran out of steam and was eliminated in the most deflating of fashions by Texas A&M, 11-10. The Mountaineers blew a 9-1 lead in the game but lost it on Bryce Blaum’s two-out, walk-off grand slam home run.
4. Athlete of the Year: Alek Manoah
At the start of 2019, it was given that quarterback Will Grier was going to be the WVU Athlete of the Year.
He was the All-American boy who was going to drive WVU into a Big 12 championship in football.
What did happen was that a pitcher who at six feet, five inches and 260 pounds and looked like a tight end but played on the unheralded baseball team rose to become an All-American and first round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays.
In his two previous WVU seasons Alek Manoah had compiled a 4-6 record with 3.57 ERA, striking out 105 while walking 61. In 2019 as he led WVU to the NCAA Tournament, Manoah went 9-3 with a 2.08 ERA, striking out 144 and walking 27.
The honors poured in – All-Big 12, Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, All-American and the No. 11 in the first round of the draft, only the second Mountaineer ever to go in the first round, joining pitcher Chris Enochs.
“It’s extremely emotional to be able to be here with all my teammates, my entire family and the coaching staff,” Manoah said after watching his name be called on television. “It’s been a huge blessing for me to see my dreams come true.”
“It’s hard to put into words,” Mazey said. “Our job as coaches and as parents is to make memories for these kids. This is a memory Alek will never forget, I’ll never forget and his teammates will never forget. You can check that box as far as making a memory for Alek here in Morgantown.”
5. NCAA discovers Morgantown
It had been 1955 since WVU had hosted an NCAA Baseball Regional Tournament and the neither the school had ever hosted a NCAA national championship event but this year they hosted both.
Lured by the beautiful new Monongalia County Ballpark and a baseball team that would fill it, the NCAA gave WVU a Regional and, with the Mountaineers’ rifle team the most legendary in the sport, the NCAA held its national championship in Morgantown.
Both were aesthetic successes but Texas A&M won the Regional, overcoming a 9-1 deficit and beating WVU, 11-10, on a heartbreaking, two-out walk off grand slam home run.
The rifle team finished second to TCU in the NCAAs.
“This was one of the most incredible atmospheres we’ve ever had at an NCAA Championships,” Mountaineer rifle coach Jon Hammond said. “To have that many people show up and show their support for our team and the sport was incredible.
“This was one of the best championships there’s been for a long time. It may not have been the result we wanted at the end, but a huge thank you to the fans and the (WVU) staff.”
No. 6 Quarterback Will Grier passed over in NFL draft until the third round
Many believed WVU quarterback Will Grier would be the third or fourth quarterback drafted by the NFL.
He seeded almost certain to go in the first round.
He didn’t even go the first day, finally being selected by the Carolina Panthers with the 100th selection of the draft in the third round.
Grier was the fifth quarterback taken, coming after Missouri’s Drew Lock went in the second round.
This was how NFL.com described it:
“Scouts were torn on Grier out of college. The 24-year-old is seen as a ‘good thrower’ who is ‘super smart’ but needs a ‘development period,’ according to football minds who spoke to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. Grier had a high completion rate and a wild TD-to-INT ratio (71:20) at West Virginia, though scouts chalked that up to the simplicity of his offense.”
There was another surprising and disappointing moment in the draft when Grier’s favorite touchdown target, David Sills V, went undrafted, signing right after the draft as a free agent with the Buffalo Bills.
Grier was the first Mountaineer drafted, followed by offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste with the 101st pick of the New England Patriots.
Also drafted was wide receiver Gary Jennings by Seattle with the 120th pick, tight end Trevon Wesco by the New York Jets with the 121st pick and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year linebacker David Long by the Tennessee Titans with the 188th pick.
7. Soccer shockers
It was a shocking year both in men’s and women’s soccer at WVU.
Coach Nikki Izzo-Brown’s team had a rebuilding season had a 12-8-2 record to finish 29th in the NCAA RPIs but bounced back with a strong run in the post season. After losing to eventual Big 12 champion Kansas, 4-0, in the first round of the conference tournament, they went on a run in the NCAA Tournament.
The WVU women made it to the Round of 16 before losing to Washington State, 3-0, in Charlottesville, Va.
“I’m proud of this run and I’m super proud of this team,” Izzo-Brown continued. “This is a young team that’s faced a lot of adversity throughout the season and they never gave up. It’s been an incredible run.”
The men’s struggled through the regular season with a 9-8-2 record, not winning a regular season game but they got hot in the conference tournament and beat Bowling Green, 1-0, in the final to win the championship and qualify for the NCAAs.
The win came on Luke McCormick’s 86th-minute goal that gave the Mountaineers their first MAC title.
“What a credit to my kids,” WVU coach Marlon LeBlanc said. “What a credit to the resilience, the fight and the character for us to go from where we’ve been to where we are now. That’s a testament to the character and the championship mentality of this team.”
WVU followed that up with a win over Butler in the NCAA Championships before bowing out to in-state rival Marshall in Huntington.
Then came the real shocker as LeBlanc ended his 14 years as Mountaineer coach by resigning with a 138-100-34 record to spend more time with his family.
“I want to thank Marlon for leading our men’s soccer program for the past 14 years,” Lyons said. “He took over a team when it was going through some tough times and guided it back to being a competitive program that performed well in the classroom and the community. We appreciate his work ethic and his accomplishments at West Virginia University.”
8. New track and swimming and diving facilities opens at Mylan Park
Badly in need of new facilities, for swimming and diving and track and cross country, WVU got together with the county and built both at Mylan Park with competition beginning there this year.
The two-story aquatic center was dedicated on November 1.
The Aquatic Center at Mylan Park is Morgantown’s first-ever Olympic-sized, 50-meter swimming pool, with eight competition lanes and an adjustable bulkhead to swim short- or long-courses. The eight-lane diving well has a wide array of platforms and springboards. The Aquatic Center is equipped with 1,500 spectator seats.
“The one word that comes to my mind is spectacular,” Lyons said. “To see this facility come to fruition after a number of years … obviously, when I got here the concept was there and then being able to put all of the numbers together and work with the community to make this happen, it’s truly transformational for our swim programs.
“The old Natatorium was completely outdated and the work that it needed we probably could have never done, so to be able to collaborate with the community to build something like this for our program and for (North Central West Virginia) is something very special.”
Though dedicated in October of 2018, the Mylan Park Track and Field Facility hosted its first WVU meet in March of this year.
“It is a great day for Mon County,” Lyons said at the dedication. “There has been a lot of collaboration among the group to make this a first-class facility, not only for Morgantown but for the greater area.”