In a development that still boggles the mind, WVU will enter this weekend’s series against TCU tied for first place in the Big 12 Conference. This is the same Mountaineer team that was a unanimous pick to finish last in the Big 12 preseason poll. Not a single voter believed West Virginia was capable of even finishing eighth in the nine-team league -- let alone contending at the very top of the standings as the calendar inches toward mid-May.
It’s a feel-good story in what has been a difficult athletics year for WVU in many respects. Football collapsed down the stretch after a hot start to the season. Basketball went through its worst year in a decade.
Fans across the state have been ready to embrace a winner, and that’s why record crowds have turned up for recent games in Beckley, Morgantown and Charleston. First-year coach Randy Mazey said the players have earned their newfound success -- but with that success comes responsibility.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position to not have the luxury to take any time off or pitches off or take at-bats off or take days off,” Mazey said on a Wednesday teleconference with reporters. “Mediocre teams can do that. Winning teams, once you set that bar, you’ve got to live up to it, you know?
“You’ve got to keep convincing them that every pitch when you’re in the batter’s box means a lot, every pitch you throw means a lot, every time you throw on defense, you’ve got to make every play. That’s what championship teams do. These guys created this for themselves based on how hard they’ve worked and everything they’ve done. Now they’ve got to live up to it.”
Mazey noted that preparing his players for the adversity of a tough schedule and unusual travel obligations was simple enough. After all, none of that was unexpected.
Preparing players to handle the emotions of high-level success -- a sweep of Kansas two weekends ago, a series win over then-No. 10 Oklahoma last weekend -- was more difficult. But so far, they have embraced that challenge as well, according to the coach.
“You see teams all the time, and I gave them four examples of programs around the country this year, as soon as they jumped into the top 25 or top 30, they immediately followed it up with an awful weekend where they lost two out of three games to a bad team, that type of thing,” Mazey said. “So if you get to start having success and you start listening to everybody who tells you how great you are. ‘Oh, you guys are wonderful and I can’t believe you’re doing what you’re doing.’ if you listen to that and get caught up in it, that’s how you have a bad weekend or lose some games.
“I gave them some examples of teams that happened to and other professions you look at in this world that, just based on the nature of their business, they can’t afford to take a day off. Imagine if a heart surgeon doesn’t give 100 percent one day at work, or if a pilot doesn’t give his all one day, what’s the result of that? My prime example is as a father. If you’re a father, you don’t have the luxury of taking a day off. You’re a father all the time. if you’re a winning baseball program, a championship-type team, you put yourself in this position and now you can’t take a day off. You’ve got to come every day, every practice prepared to get better. Every game, you can’t give away an at-bat. You can’t lose focus pitching to the No. 9 hitter. When you get to that position where you’ve proven yourself to be a winner, that’s how you stay there.”
Oddly enough, it was WVU’s performance in its lone recent loss -- a one-run decision against rival Pitt in the team’s final true home game at Hawley Field last week -- that showed Mazey his players had truly bought into that philosophy.
“After [the loss], when we met in left field, I congratulated everybody for doing exactly what I asked them to do,” Mazey said. “Every time I’ve given this team a challenge, they’ve responded. After the Pitt game, we said, like we say all the time, ‘Don’t get caught up in results. Get caught up in the process.’
“We came to that Pitt game with energy and enthusiasm. We played hard, played a good game. They scored one more run than we did, but that doesn’t overshadow the fact that coming off a huge conference weekend, we showed up to play. So I left that game feeling better about our team than I did when that game started.”
The weekend series against the Horned Frogs will be a unique experience for Mazey, who spent three seasons as an assistant in Fort Worth under coach Jim Schlossnagle.
“You know, it’s gonna be really good to see everybody,” Mazey said. “I got so close to those kids, and they treated my family really well. My son was the bat boy there [as he now is at WVU]. Both my kids were born in Fort Worth, and they were Horned Frogs their whole lives prior to us coming here. He got close to the players, and I got close to the players and coaching staff, and they were tremendous friends of mine.
“It’s going to be good to see everyone, but when it comes to playing against them, that’s a little different story. You don’t mind competing against your friends when you’re kind of screwing around, playing golf or cards or something like that. But when there’s so much at stake and you don’t want anybody to lose, that makes it a little bit tougher.”
Mazey had previously spent time as a head coach at Charleston Southern and East Carolina before becoming an assistant at TCU, but he said he learned about the value of being more than just a teacher of baseball from his time assisting Schlossnagle.
“He is a manager of the program,” Mazey said of his former boss. “It’s not just on the baseball field, teaching them how to hit curveballs and field back-hands. It’s alumni, it’s community, it’s fundraising, it’s getting to know people and presenting your program the right way.
“That’s the kind of thing -- prior to me going there, I was all about wins and losses. What did I have to do to have a great season? But he’s a manager of the entire program. That’s kind of what I tried to do here by getting alumni involved and getting excitement in the community about the program. That’s all stuff he was really, really good at.”
The Horned Frogs have had a bit of a disappointing season by their own lofty standards, currently 8-10 in Big 12 play and 23-24 overall. But Mazey said that doesn’t mean this weekend’s series will be easy.
“They’re really good. They have the best pitching in the league, and they’re very capable of shutting you out on any given day no matter who starts or who comes in relief,” he said. “You have to play your best game every time to try to scratch out runs. They’re very capable offensively. They’ve got good hitters in the lineup from top to bottom. They’re just not having great years right now.
“In typical TCU fashion, they always swing the bats better at the end of the year than they do at the beginning. They went out to USC last weekend and scored a lot of runs. Once their hitting catches up with their pitching, which it always does, then they could potentially be the best team on our schedule.”