Play developmental summer baseball in Alaska, and have 18 hours of daylight and 65-degree days. Play the ultra-competitive college season at West Virginia and suffer sub-zero outside temperatures and indoor-only practices headed into a season-opener deep in the heart of hockey season. Rice, who led WVU in hits (73) and batting average (.333) last season, will not have fielded a fly ball outside of the Caperton Indoor Facility before the first inning on Friday against College World Series participant and 13th-ranked Louisville.
“It’s not really game-like,” Rice said of the drill sessions inside WVU’s IPF. “The first time we will be outside is (the opener). The ball flies different. You don’t really get true outfield reads. It’ll definitely be a challenge, but I think we are up for it.”
The IPF walls are white, making visual recognition of the ball there more difficult that in most outdoor settings. But the flight of a hit, the trajectory, the ability to play on a full-sized field is an aspect as imperative as any in the preseason, according to assistant coach Steven Trout. The atypically harsh Morgantown winter, with nearly snow on the ground since early January and some lows in the negatives with windchills as bitter as -40, has forced head coach Randy Mazey’s team into the somewhat friendlier confines of the indoor facility. The set-up is better than it was last season, when the Mountaineers’ weight room was being renovated. Then, the baseball team could use just half of the facility, as the weights and other equipment were stored on significant portions of the IPF turf.
And still, West Virginia went 33-26 in a shockingly successful season. But, if one examines the initial portions of the nonconference slate, it took Mazey and the Mountaineers at least 20 games to begin to jell. WVU started 8-12, with portions of that being a feeling-out period between both staff and players. But, certainly, having a better weather situation would aid the effort. Alas, there’s nothing to be done now, and Rice recognizes such.
“Hey, this year we are more prepared,” Rice said. “We know what to look for. We know what Texas has, what Baylor has, everybody. I think we have more leadership and our pitching is coming on pretty good, which we will need more later in the season. We are all excited for Louisville first game.”
Rice said his stint with the Glacier Pilots, of the Alaska Baseball League, was spent trying to hone in a swing that was among the best on the team last season. Besides leading WVU in hits and average – and ranking 8th and 9th in the Big 12 in the categories – the rising senior had a team-best 27 multi-hit games and was named Big 12 Honorable Mention and to the Big 12 All-Tournament team. The 6-3, 200-pounder clinched a 6-5 tournament victory over Oklahoma State with a game-winning single in extra innings that finished a rally from a 5-0 deficit and moved the Mountaineers within a game of playing for the Big 12 title and their first NCAA Tournament berth in 17 years.
Now, Rice and West Virginia will put Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Harrison Musgrave on the mound in the season opener versus U of L. Sean Carley, a transfer from Air Force, will start the second game against Delaware while John Means gets the call against host The Citadel in the Homewood Suites Tournament in Charleston, S.C. Carley was a teammate of Rice on the Glacier Pilots; Rice hit .195 with nine runs, one homer, one double and seven RBI in 31 games. Pitcher Michael Bennett also played in ABL for the Fairbanks-based Alaska Goldpanners. Bennett, a righthander, is expected to provide key relief and perhaps earn a midweek starts after transferring from Feather River College in California.
“Sometimes you’ll be working on things you need to do (in summer league) and the results will be worse (initially),” Rice said. “You won’t go two for four or one for three. But you’re getting better, and that’s all summer ball is for. I need to work on outfield play. I feel like I could have done better last year. I’m working on that and continuing what I did last year in approach to the plate.”
Rice had never been to Alaska before the recent offseason, and noted that “it’s a fun state. You see all this wildlife and you get to go fishing every day. It was a fun experience. (There’s a) Midnight Sun game. The whole game was around midnight and it was light out.”
The contest, held in Fairbanks, lasts from 10:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m. local time. Fairbanks, a 360-mile, roughly seven-hour northern drive from Anchorage, has noticeably more daylight. The sun drips below the horizon on the solstice for just one hour, during which evening-like conditions prevail. Players such as Tom Seaver, Dave Winfield, Harold Reynolds and former Red Sox and current Indians manager Terry Francona have appeared in the game. This weekend, West Virginia just hopes to get games in. Just inland from Charleston, an ice storm is supposed to hit the Carolina’s Wednesday into Thursday. Perhaps that’s apropos for an offseason on The Last Frontier.
“You can’t do anything about it,” Rice said.