When West Virginia accepted an invitation in autumn 2011 to join the Big 12, athletic director Oliver Luck had some shaky thoughts about his baseball program. Could the Mountaineers compete?
But in West Virginia’s maiden Big 12 year, baseball was an absolute success story.
West Virginia stumbled in its first Big 12 football season. The Mountaineers went 7-6 and finished in a four-way tie for fifth place, with a 4-5 record.
The Mountaineers finished 13-19 in men’s basketball, including a 6-12 conference record, good for eighth place in the Big 12.
But in baseball, West Virginia shined. The Mountaineers went 33-26 but went 13-11 in the Big 12, tying OU for third place in the conference.
For the Friday Oklahoman, I wrote about West Virginia baseball’s humanitarian gestures in the aftermath of the May 20 tornado in May. You can read that column here.
But in chatting with Luck on Wednesday, he reiterated what he told me last summer. That he was concerned about West Virginia baseball’s ability to survive in the Big 12.
“In our former conference, the old Big East, baseball really wasn’t a sport that people focused on,” Luck said. “Partially because of the weather. But there were very few really top-notch programs. When we moved into the Big 12, I was worried about our baseball team. I don’t want any of our programs to be a doormat. That’s bad for a kid.”
Luck admits he even considered dropping the program. West Virginia hadn’t been all that competitive in the Big East. Facilities were not good. “Can we play baseball at a Big 12 level?” he asked.
So Luck convened a summit. He asked Ken Kendrick, managing partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and a West Virginia alum and native, to send a couple of the D-backs’ minor league executives. He did the same with another West Virginia family, the Nuttings, who own the Pittsburgh Pirates. “They sent some guys up; Ken sent some guys up,” Luck said. He told them, “I’d like to host a summit, if you will. Just internally and really get some good advice from people that know baseball better than I do. We talked about, can we succeed in our climate, can we recruit well enough to compete against all these good kids from Texas and Oklahoma, yada yada yada.
“The short answer was, yeah you can. You might have to do things a little differently. They all told me, when you hire a new coach, make sure you hire someone who understands the weather up there.”
Luck had dismissed baseball coach Greg Van Zant on May 19, 2012. Luck found someone with seemingly perfect credentials in Randy Mazey, who grew up just north of Morgantown in Johnstown, Pa., but who had spent the previous six seasons on the TCU baseball staff. And Mazey’s team produced.
And the future looks bright. West Virginia is building a new stadium that is set to open in 2015, and Morgantown is negotiating to bring to town a team to play in the New York-Penn League, a short-season Class A association that plays primarily in the summer months.
“I think we are going to be in pretty good shape as long as we can keep Coach Mazey, because he’s done a marvelous job with the kids,” Luck said. “They performed really well. And what’s great to see, all of a sudden, we’ve got a sport in the springtime that our fans can sort of rally around and follow. And I think the competition level in the Big 12 between Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Kansas State, all these really good programs, are helping us raise the level of our game. That’s really been a true win-win for us.
“Have the baseball park that will open up not next season but the following season. I think baseball can rightfully take its proper space in our athletic hierarchy at WVU. That’s nice to see. Great sport.”
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