By Ryan Decker
The West Virginia University baseball team begins play in its 125th season playing on the diamond later this week as college teams all across the country begin the 2017 campaign.
WVU is coming off its best season under head coach Randy Mazey, winning 36 games and making it to the Big 12 Championship Game a year ago. This year, the goal is to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996.
Mazey, along with hitting coach Steve Sabins and pitching coach Derek Matlock, sounded confident that this year’s team can build off the success of the team from last season when they talked to the media Tuesday.
“We have all the pieces in place,” Mazey said. “Even though this is a young team, this is an experienced team.”
Youthful experience is a good way to describe the Mountaineers with 22 returning players, most of whom are underclassmen. The Mountaineers led the nation in games started by freshmen in 2016, and have just a total seven upperclassmen.
Jackson Cramer and Jackson Sigman are the lone two seniors, and both will fill important roles. Cramer will once again act as the everyday first baseman and be an key bat in the middle of the order. Sigman is poised to see his innings increase as he will assume a more defined late-inning role out of the bullpen.
Other returning players to note include junior infielder Kyle Davis, junior starting pitcher BJ Myers, and sophomore outfielder Darius Hill, among others.
Davis hopes to pick back up right where he left off in the Big 12 Championship tournament last May, during which he drove in a tournament-record 14 runs. Myers heads into the new season as Mazey and Matlock’s No. 1 starter. Hill, who hit .342 in a freshman campaign that earned him a Freshman All-American Team selection, will be the leader in the outfield.
The feeling of missing out on the national postseason has stayed with this program, which goes into the year with the slogan, “We’re on a mission.”
“If we can manage to stay focused and play with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, I think this team is pretty capable of doing some pretty special things,” Mazey said.
All three coaches that spoke media members Tuesday certainly gave the impression that this team has grown a lot since it’s heart-breaking loss to Texas Christian University at the end of May, both as a collective unit, and from player to player.
“All these kids that had success last year are a little bit more physical than they were,” said Mazey. “That’s the year of growth between your freshman and sophomore year. Those guys are bigger and stronger than they were last year – Marques (Inman) being one of them. Darius Hill has gained some weight.”
West Virginia begins play this year with each of its first 16 games being played on the road in warmer weather, playing in North and South Carolina and Louisiana. The Mountaineers also have 23 home games.
Overall, this year’s schedule features better opponents than the slate of games from a year ago, which was one of the factors that kept the Mountaineers out of the NCAA Tournament.
West Virginia has five currently-ranked teams on its schedule: Big 12 rivals (1) TCU, (19) Oklahoma State, (21) Texas Tech, and out of conference opponents (25) Maryland and defending champions (15) Costal Carolina. Series against the Horned Frogs and Red Raiders will be played at Monongalia County Ballpark, while the other games against ranked competition come on the road.
WVU’s first home game is scheduled for March 14 at 3:00 p.m. against Morehead State.
The Mountaineers were selected to finish fifth in the Big 12 Preseason Coaches Poll, however, they were the only team other than TCU to receive a first place vote. Coaches are not allowed to vote for their own team in the poll.
Tomorrow I’ll preview the Mountaineer offense, and the WVU pitching staff and defense on Friday.