Perhaps no program in school history has faced as great of a challenge from one season to the next after being solidly established. There's a clear upgrade in opposing talent and facility level, a new coaching staff and, because of subpar facilities, just eight true home games in arguably the most difficult schedule in program history.
"The challenges we are facing are unprecedented, probably in college baseball or West Virginia history," first-year head coach Randy Mazey said. "How many games are going to be on the road and our home games being 2.5 hours away. … This could be the type of story books are written about with all the adversity and challenges we are facing. There's no such thing as a great story without having adversity and challenges. We definitely got it."
West Virginia, which hasn't made the NCAA Tournament in 16 years, watched its program stagnate under the former coaching staff and an administration that gave it the bare essentials – and some would argue not even that – and simply asked it to be a mid-level team in a below-average baseball conference called the Big East. WVU got exactly what it paid for, and the new coaching staff is suffering the hangover from a decade of floundering that saw zero league titles and no regular season finish better than third.
Not that Mazey or his staff or players are complaining. The Mountaineers are attempting to rebuild and rebrand a program that's flashed promise at times, but never truly had the backing at any level it needed. Under new Director of Athletics Oliver Luck and Mazey – who has guided Charleston Southern and East Carolina to the NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals, respectively – West Virginia is primed, if it gets funding agreements in place, to play in a new stadium by 2014 and assume a proper role as a legitimate player in the solid Big 12.
First things first, however, and that's a 2013 schedule that has WVU playing 15 of its 23 "home games" away from Morgantown because Hawley Field was deemed insufficient for conference play. And one can't blame the Big 12. The field has no home or away locker rooms, forcing players to dress in the parking lot. From its original building in 1971 until 1985, it had no dugouts. It was a big deal when, in 2009, WVU funded the most basic of needs, a batter's eye in centerfield. And yet that improvement, as well as the planting of trees to beautify the setting, are touted as significant upgrades on the school's official website. That should give one an idea of exactly where baseball ranked – or, rather, didn't – in the school's hierarchy.
So the Mountaineers will play the majority of conference home games in Charleston at Appalachian Power Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates' Class A affiliate West Virginia Power. One series, versus Kansas, will be in Beckley against Kansas at the West Virginia Miner's Linda K. Epling Stadium. Hawley Field gets the non-conference action. The slate forces significantly more travel on a team already batting to overcome expected gaps in talent and depth.
"We have an opportunity to do great things based on what we are facing," Mazey said. "If you accomplish you goal, when you look back on it, it's way more satisfying if you had to go through a lot of stuff to achieve it. That's what we are facing and it's a great opportunity. If you're going to be mentally tough, when things get tough you have to get better. Then things get even tougher, and you have to continue to get better. The more stuff that's piled on you, you learn to overcome. We are putting them in tough situations. We are trying to prepare them for the tough situations coming."
Mazey spent three seasons, 2003-05, as head coach at East Carolina. The Pirates made the NCAAs every year, won 51 games in '04 and emerged with the Conference USA regular season title. Ten years prior, Mazey, in his first head coaching position, turned a Charleston Southern program from 19-34 his first season to 30-24-1 and an NCAA Regional berth two years later. But, in all three cases, those programs came with a bit more bite. These Mountaineers, to use a seemingly trite phrase, have been toothless for quite awhile, and there's that feeling that Mazey might be taking a knife to a gun fight.
"Offensively, I think we can match-up with a lot of people," Mazey said. "We have got some players. When we meet as a coaching staff and discuss the line-up, and some things like that, we actually feel like we are going to have good players that don't make the starting line-up. Depth is something you need over the course of a long season. Somebody is going to get hurt. It's early. But I really like our team offensively."
Mazey does have the benefit or returning 19 of 20 lettermen from last season. WVU also brings back the vast majority of its offense, its RBI, its home runs. Virtually all of its position players returned.
"We got some options, which is a good thing," Mazey said. "When you're writing a line-up, you want to be able to write it from number one on down. If you're writing your line-up starting at number nine and working your way up, that's not a very good way to do things. We have a lot of options. We have a little speed, got a little power, got some depth. So if pitchers make mistakes against this team, I think we will have some success."
It starts with left fielder Matt Frazer, who led the team in home runs (6) and doubles (23) and has the most pure power of any returning player. The 6-5, 260-pound Nitro High grad hit .294 last season with 31 RBI, one of which was a walk-off homer against Villanova. Fellow outfielder Bobby Boyd is back after a leading the team with a .321 batting average and stealing 23 bases. He closed last year on a 10-game hitting streak, and figures to find a spot somewhere in the line-up with his blend of speed and contact ability.
Billy Fleming returns at second base after starting 39 games as a freshman, hitting .316 with 22 RBI. Catcher Max Nogay started 25 games at catcher last year. Alan Filauro, who transferred from Potomac State prior to last season, also figures into the mix at catcher. Both Nogay and Filauro need to improve a .206 and .208 averages, respectively, and could get pushed by newcomer Ray Guerinni, out of Highland Heights, Ohio.
Nate Antone manned third base last season, hitting .225. First baseman Ryan McBroom, 6-3, 220 pounds, played all 55 games last year and hit .302. Entering his junior year, he has already played in 100 career games, starting 90. Senior outfielder Chris Rasky, 6-5, 215 pounds, has 124 career games played, 92 starts. He averaged just .195 last season, striking out about once per start. But he's excellent in the field. Brady Wilson, a senior who manned right field last year, hit .271 with seven doubles and four homers with 10 stolen bases.
Mazey and assistants Derek Matlock and Steven Trout added a 17-player class to the 19 lettermen. The class nicely covers some needs with an additional catcher, a power outfielder, a utility player and nine pitchers, including two southpaws. The trio dug into their Texas roots for multiple Midwest and southwest players while trying to maintain traditional ties into Pennsylvania, New York/New Jersey, Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia.
On the mound, Ryan Tezak led the team in appearances (18), saves (6) and ERA (1.35) and went 10 consecutive appearances without allowing a run. State natives Josh Harlow (4-3, 4.71 career ERA) and Harrison Musgrave, who redshirted last season following Tommy John surgery, have flashes of good stuff. Lefty Zach Bargeron has six starts in 19 appearances with a 4.35 ERA last year. Marshall Thompson gives WVU another left arm if he can overcome control issues. And there's a blend of freshmen and junior college transfers that should be in the mix.
"We don't have a clue," Mazey said of his top three pitchers. "Every job is open. There literally could be anybody. The next weeks will be important to fill those first three starting roles. Like I said, there are 10 or 12 guys who are very capable of pitching on the weekends. So it's going to be competitive when these guys take the mound to try and win their spots."
As Nolan Ryan once noted, "One of the beautiful things about baseball is that every once in a while you come into a situation where you want to, and where you have to, reach down and prove something." West Virginia is there.
"There are some goals that we talk about," Mazey said. "I'd rather keep them amongst the team right now because they are pretty fired up about our goals. If we accomplish them, and they are working hard to do that, I think the satisfaction will be great. … I think excitement is probably going to turn into a little bit of nervousness as we get closer, with nobody knowing what to expect. It's been building. The next few weeks will fly."