Monday, October 24, 2016

West Virginia baseball: A season of growing and success

Photo Credit: Kelsie VanderWijst

Photo Credit: Kelsie VanderWijst

MORGANTOWN, W.Va–The baseball season came to an end for the West Virginia Mountaineers (27-27) on Thursday. While the outcome was a little disappointing, the season was far from a disappointment.

“Well, I was really proud of our guys for the effort they gave just to make it down here with what we were facing,” head coach Randy Mazey said in his opening statement after West Virginia’s loss in the Big 12 tournament. “We had to win three of our last four games in the league just to get here. I really, really wanted to come and play here for the experience of the younger guys in the program that had never been here.”

The Mountaineers lost star pitchers Harrison Musgrave, Sean Carly, infielders Ryan McBroom, Ryan Tuntland and outfielder Bobby Boyd, who was drafted in the eighth round by the Houston Astros.

“We had so many question marks heading into this season,” Mazey added. “We returned less innings pitched on our pitching staff than any team in the United States – that’s over 300 programs. So for us to grind out what we grinded out during the season, with such an inexperienced pitching staff, [I’m] really proud of our guys. I think we overachieved.”

No one ever doubted that West Virginia would have good season, after all, Mazey did a complete 360 with the Mountaineer baseball program since taking over in 2013. But there were a lot of question marks coming in to the 2015 season.

The Big 12 is a tough baseball conference. Typically the older teams are the top dogs and the younger ones are at the bottom.  West Virginia, Baylor, Texas, Kansas State and Kansas were among the youngest team in the league this season and they finished in the bottom five of the conference.

But that being said, with age comes success and the Mountaineers should only get better in the coming years.

West Virginia only had three seniors on this year’s team. They were three seniors who played key roles for the Mountaineers.

Starting third baseman Justin Fox was the final player from the Greg Van Zant era and he became a solid asset for the program. The New Martinsville, West Virginia native batted .273 with 18 RBIs and added a solid glove at the hot corner.

Taylor Munden grew into a top Big 12 shortstop in his two years with the Mountaineers. The Lewisville, Texas native won the home run title in the Big 12 with 11 long balls on the year.

Munden was the only Mountaineers to wear the “C” (Captain) on his jersey this season, and his heart and grit showed the senior deserved the honor. Going into the final weekend of the season against Texas Tech, West Virginia needed to win 2-of-3 games to get into the Big 12 tournament. In Thursday’s opening game, Munden took a foul ball off his ankle in the batter’s box and grimaced in pain in the third inning.

Instead of coming out of the game or giving up, Munden went on to beat out a double play and remained in the game.

Brad Johnson transferred from USC Sumter, a junior college in South Carolina two years ago. He became and everyday outfielder this season and batted a .259 clip with two home runs and 27 RBIs.

“Those guys are the ones that laid the ground work and the foundation for the young kids in the program,” Mazey said in an interview with WV Illustrated.  They did a fabulous job. I’m going to miss those guys. But I’m no longer their coach. Now I can be their friend and watch them grow as fathers, husbands and employees. It’s a lot of fun to prepare those guys for what lies ahead of them. Hopefully they’re very appreciative of everything they got as part of Mountaineer Baseball because we try to treat them in a first class manner. I’m anxious for those guys to get on with their lives.”

Besides those three, the Mountaineers will return everyone else, including the entire pitching staff including lefty Ross Vance and right-hander Chad Donato.

Donato and Vance will give West Virginia a solid one-two punch. Donato went 7-6 with a 3.07 ERA in 15 appearances. Vance was 7-5 with a 3.26 ERA in 14 appearances. BJ Myers will also be in the mix next season. He was brilliant at times this year and could develop into a star.

The bullpen was a troubled area with this season’s team, but the Mountaineers had limited options. Blake Smith was the only reliever with any experience, but even for him, it was his first year playing Division-I college baseball after transferring in from Howard College in Texas.

The rest of the bullpen consisted of nine freshmen, including Conner Dotson, Adam Keller and Shane Ennis, among others. So if the starters failed to go deep into the game, West Virginia had to rely on its youth, which didn’t always work in their favor.

The Mountaineers’ offense had a season of up and downs. Some nights the offense flourished and other nights West Virginia failed to score. They often stranded runners in scoring position on numerous accounts, including the two games of the Big 12 tournament.

Kyle Davis led West Virginia with his .353 batting average during his freshman campaign.

Jackson Cramer replaced McBroom at first, which was a tall task. McBroom was arguably the best defensive first baseman in Mountaineers’ history. During his sophomore campaign, Cramer batted .291 with eight home runs and 21 RBIs.

Outfielder Shaun Wood led West Virginia with 32 home runs. He hit eight home runs but only batted a .176 clip and he struggled at the end of the year.

The addition of the Monongalia County Ballpark will also benefit the Mountaineers in the years to come. The ballpark brought in more than 33,000 fans in the 18 home games played this year, averaging out to a little more than 1,800 per game.

The attendance and the new facility has helped put the program on the map. West Virginia landed a 14-man recruiting class for next year, which is the 59th-best in the nation, according to Perfect Game. Four recruits come from Georgia and three from Texas.

The future of West Virginia baseball is bright, and fans should be in for a real treat over the next few years.



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