By Ryan Decker
The 2017 College Baseball season is here! It’s Opening Day for teams across the country, including for the West Virginia Mountaineers.
West Virginia enters the season on a mission to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in two decades, still feeling the sting from being left out last year.
In order to win games, you not only have to score more runs at the plate, but you also have to keep the opposing team off the scoreboard with pitching and good defense.
WVU heads into the 2017 campaign without two of the starting pitchers it leaned on heavily last year, in Chad Donato and Ross Vance. The Mountaineer defense, on the other hand, will plenty of familiar faces.
With Donato and Vance now pitching in the Minor Leagues, BJ Myers leads the West Virginia rotation. Myers started 10 games and appeared in seven others out of the bullpen in 2016, finishing the year with a 5-3 record.
Joining him in the starting rotation are Conner Dotson, and West Virginia native Michael Grove, forming a 1-2-3 punch that the coaching staff feels confident in.
“I really like our three starters,” head coach Randy Mazey said Tuesday. “I think that might be the strength of this team with BJ Myers, Michael Grove and Conner Dotson, (they) all have experience at this level and all have success at this level.”
Myers will get the start Friday in Charlotte, while Grove will toe the rubber Saturday and Mazey will send Dotson to the hill for the series finale Sunday.
Dotson and Grove are both said to be throwing the ball very well, velocity-wise, hovering around the low-to-mid 90’s.
“Right now we’ve got a bunch of guys that are throwing the ball good,” said Matlock.
From there things get a little murky on the pitching staff.
Tanner Campbell and Braden Zarbnisky also made starts last year, though “Zarb” may be headed to a different, more defined role.
According to pitching coach Derek Matlock, he and the coaching staff is looking at Zarbnisky to potentially fill a one- or two-inning role late in the game to bridge the gap between the starter and Jackson Sigman, who’s been named as the team’s setup man.
“He’s going to get a lot of innings late in the game,” Mazey said of Sigman.
Though nothing has been set in stone, Zarbnisky is also a candidate to be the team’s closer, along with freshman Alek Manoah, who’s definitely made an impression on the coaching staff.
“The big boy Alek Manoah from Florida, he’s a big specimen,” Mazey said. “He’s a big kid that really attacks hitters and he’s very capable. He’s going to get his opportunities at the end.”
Asked if Manoah can make an impact as a freshman, Matlock responded definitively, “No doubt, no doubt!”
Three other names to watch out for on the pitching staff include sophomore Jacob Potock, and freshmen Carter Camp and Isaiah Kerns.
Potock will be battling Manoah and Zarbnisky early in the year for the closer role, while Camp could get innings in his first season at the collegiate level as a long reliever. Camp is said to have exceptional movement on his breaking ball, possibly even more so than Donato’s breaking pitch, which Mountaineer fans know was extremely effective during his time at WVU.
When asked, Matlock said it’s hard to say who will be in line for the mid-week starter role, however, did mention that it could be a potential spot for a freshman arm to mature.
Matlock said, “If these young guys can grow up quick, it’s going to be huge.”
West Virginia’s defense will have a lot of similar names to the one Mazey and company deployed during the Big 12 Championship tournament last May, but some in different spots.
Jackson Cramer (first base), Jimmy Galusky (shortstop), and Darius Hill (right field) will stay put at their spot on the field.
Ivan Gonzalez has transitioned from manning the hot corner, to being the everyday catcher. Kyle Gray and Cole Austin will round out the infield at second and third base, respectively.
Kyle Davis will join Hill in the outfield, manning the other corner outfield spot in left.
Center field appears to be the lone position that is not fully developed yet. Candidates for the position include the “jack of all trades” Zarbnisky, and freshman Brandon White.
Despite the slight unknown, Mazey remains confident.
“When the ball goes up to center field this year I feel pretty good about the fact that it’s going to be an out,” said Mazey.
As things are still coming into fruition early in the year, opportunities will be available for players not named above to earn a spot. However, the depth the Mountaineers appear to have can be two-fold.
“We have some depth this year, position player-wise, so there’s going to be a chance for a lot of different guys to get in the game,” Mazey said. “Opportunities may be a little bit hard to come by for these guys because we have so many guys to choose from. So, we’re looking for the guys who, when they get in there, take advantage of it.”