Comfy stadium, winning games draw people to WVU baseball
Even when Coach Steve Harrick was presiding over Southern Conference baseball championships in the 1960s, WVU was never able to whet the appetite of many in Morgantown. The days were cool and often full of clouds and wind. Sitting in low-slung bleachers with no back rests to watch games against mediocre competition didn’t bring fire and brimstone to the scattered few students and adults who came to see Waynesburg, Washington & Jefferson, West Virginia Wesleyan and Washington & Lee.
Now, baseball is putting in its bid as a sport of real interest when the Mountaineers spill on to their groomed field to play the likes of Texas Christian, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Baylor and Pittsburgh.
Comfortable surroundings and quality opponents make going to see the Mountaineers a new priority. Social calendars are filled with weekend dates at the ball park when West Virginia shows its team that reached the 2017 NCAA tournament.
The weather in the hills hasn’t changed for the better, so the Mountaineers go to Florida and South Carolina to open the season against Jacksonville and Coastal Carolina (the 2016 national champion Chanticleers).
Later on, its games are against the Big 12 Conference and the six other schools that also landed in last year’s NCAA tournament. Only Kansas and Kansas State, out of the nine schools that sponsor baseball in the Big 12, didn’t qualify for the NCAA event.
The Mountaineers were placed in a Regional hosted by Wake Forest last year. The Demon Deacons beat WVU in the tournament finals, but then lost out in a Super Regional and didn’t reach the College World Series in Omaha. After its first 10 games this season – all on the road – West Virginia was 5-5. It has more road games this weekend before ever playing in Morgantown.
Only a few of the players are from West Virginia high schools. Shortstop Jimmy Galusky is from Preston County and middle reliever Shane Ennis is from Romney. There are more than a dozen players from Texas.
In its first 10 games, a set core of starters has been established: Five pitchers – B.J. Myers, Alex Manoah, Kade Strowd, Branden Zarbnisky and Isaiah Kearns – have been the starting pitchers. Strowd had a 2.57 earned run average with Zarbnisky showing a 3.60 ERA and Myers a 4.02 ERA. Ennis has allowed only one earned run in his five appearances.
Zarbnisky has taken over in left field, and after a 5-for-5 game in a win over Western Kentucky, is batting .471. Other .300-plus hitters in the early going are center fielder Brandon White (.321), third baseman Andrew Zitel (.321) and first baseman Kevin Brophy (.355).
The other regulars are catcher Ivan Gonzalez(.256), second baseman Kyle Gray (.250), designated hitter/catcher Chase Illig (.250) and right fielder Darius Hill (.239). Galusky is batting .263.
Among the league teams, only Texas and Texas Christian have met quality teams to date. Texas Tech is 13-0 and hasn’t seen any team that will be in the Top 75. Kansas is 8-2 with all 10 games at home against beatable competition. Texas Christian is 7-3 and played UC Irvine. Texas is 8-4 and had a three-game series at LSU. Kansas State is 7-4, Oklahoma State is 6-4, Oklahoma is 6-6 and Baylor is 4-6.
West Virginia’s Michael Grove (Wheeling Park High) was the team’s No. 1 pitcher a year ago, but has not been on the field this season. Grove has a long history of arm problems.
Baseball at West Virginia is now an attention-getter. Several games against conference opponents drew crowds of over 3,000 last season. Will seven conference teams be able to play their way into this year’s NCAA tournament?
West Virginia did in 2017, bringing back fading memories of Harrick’s teams that had Don Hetzel, Bill Marovic and John Radosevich.