MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–After finishing last season with a 36-22 record and a trip to the Big 12 Tournament Championship, where West Virginia University fell 11-10 to TCU in extra innings, the Mountaineers were overlooked for a slot in the NCAA regionals.
Bad losses and a weak out-of-conference schedule proved costly for WVU, who finished the season going 17-4 over their final 21 games. But the Mountaineers are determined to use that antagonism and dissatisfaction to take the conference by storm this season.
However, lack of respect still plagues the team, which is picked to finish fifth in the conference.
KC Huth, Ray Guerrini, Blake Smith, Ross Vance and Chad Donato have all departed the program but head coach Randy Mazey had a clutch recruiting class combined with several essential components.
WVU returns several players from last season’s team including, Jackson Cramer, Kyle Davis, Jimmy Galusky, Ivan Gonzalez, Kyle Gray, Darius Hill, Michael Grove, BJ Myers, Braden Zarbinsky and Cole Austin. All of who were vital contributors in the Mountaineers’ fruitful postseason run.
Donato was the ace of WVU’s pitching staff and was drafted by the Houston Astros last summer. The right-hander was a First Team Big 12 Selection. He had 110 strikeouts as a junior in 14 games but the Mountaineers were forced to forge on during the postseason after Donato suffered an arm injury.
With Vance and Donato gone, Tanner Campbell and Grove will both have a chance to crack WVU’s starting rotation. During their freshman campaigns, both showed glimpses of brilliance at times.
Campbell posted a 2-1 record and 3.42 ERA last year in six appearances. He struck out 18 and walked 10 while the opposition batted a .240 clip.
The right-hander holds the Taylor High (Florida) record for most strikeouts (17) in a game and in a season (91).
Grove went 2-4 with a 3.40 ERA while fanning 56 batters in 16 appearances.
While the Wheeling native had an up and down season, he proved to be robust during the final weeks.
The Mountaineers will depend on juniors Myers and Conner Dotson to anchor the rotation.
Myers finished with a 5-3 record and a 4.05 ERA. The right-hander struck out 53 batters and held opponents to a .232 batting average.
Dotson went 7-4 with a 4.44 ERA last season. He struck 40 in 20 appearances.
Myers, Grove and Dotson will likely make up the weekend rotation.
“Those are three veteran guys who have been here,” Mazey said. “I call (the sophomore) Grove a veteran because he pitched so much down the stretch. Those guys can be as good as anybody out there.”
Jackson Sigman, Zarbnisky, Endy Morales, Jacob Potock, Jacob Brewer and Shane Ennis will all play significant roles in the bullpen
Highly touted freshman Alek Manoah, will figure in the pitching core somewhere, possibly as a closer. Replacing Blake Smith in the ninth inning will not be an easy task but Manoah is the guy who could do it.
He has a lot of arm strength and a fastball that reaches into the 90s. The 6-foot-6 righty has a powerful breaking ball that leaves batters in the dust.
“We’re going to pick and choose his spots and limit his pitch count and protect him a little bit, Mazey said. “Over time, this kid is going to be a good player.”
Guerrini, who signed a free-agent contract with the Seattle Mariners last summer, is the biggest loss of the infield. He hit .289 and drove in 26 RBI.
Gonzales is expected to handle the biggest part of the catching this season. As a freshman, he batted a .389 clip, driving in 23 runs in 134 at bats.
Cramer returns as the starter at first base. The senior batted .300 with 45 RBI and nine homers last year.
Former Preston High star Jimmy Galusky will hold down the fort at shortstop. During his freshman campaign, he batted .282 with 17 RBI.
Galusky’s glove was his biggest attribute. He committed just eight errors and has put on some weight during the offseason.
Cole Austin spent most of his time at second base his first season with WVU but could play some third base this year with Gonzales.
Kyle Gray is likely to start at second. He batted .270 with 22 RBI as a freshman.
Losing Huth in center field leaves an opportunity for freshman Brandon White to start.
White is a 5-foot-11, 155-pounder that is extremely athletic and has some pop in his bat. He excels in the field, reading the ball well off the bat. His speed allows him to cover lot of ground.
Davis will remain in left field and Hill in right.
Davis batted a .280 clip, driving in 43 RBI last season. He led the Mountaineers with 10 home runs.
Hill drove in 40 runs while batting .342.
WVU will be looking to return to grab an NCAA regional berth for the first time since 1996 and Mazey is confident that he can do so with this group of young men.
And the “We’re on a mission!” T-shirts the Mountaineers sported during the fall are proof of that.
WVU will face their toughest challenge right off the bat when then Mountaineers open in the Carolinas with games against Charlotte, George Mason, Ball State and the defending National Champs, Coastal Carolina.
“You look at Coastal Carolina, which won a national championship last year, and that’s what they did,” Mazey said. “A bunch of guys hit a lot of homers, but they were top 10 in the nation in sacrifice bunts, too. I think we have that type of team offensively that we’ll be able to do that.”
With a good portion of last year’s team returning, the chemistry of this WVU baseball team is intact and the newcomers seem to be meshing well with the veterans.
Cover Photo Credit: Kelsie LeRose, BGS