West Virginia enters the weekend with little hope of winning the Big 12 title.
And that's not a bad thing.
Far from it.
The Mountaineers were the unanimous pick to finish last in the league following a preseason poll of the coaches. Yet here they are, at 30-23 overall and 12-9 in the conference, still in the Big 12 title chase in their debut season.
And if things go just right this weekend — if Oklahoma wins two or three at first place Kansas State and the Mountaineers sweep Oklahoma State in Stillwater — West Virginia will claim a share of the most unlikely baseball championship in the history of the conference.
“We were basically playing with the house's money for the first half of the season,” said WVU coach Randy Mazey. “Then when people started seeing West Virginia on their schedule, surrounded by Texas or Oklahoma or TCU or Oklahoma State, I think they naturally were feeling a little bit of a letdown, thinking like it might be a little easier weekend than the others.
“And that's exactly what we were hoping for, by being picked to finish last.”
At some point, though, the Mountaineers commanded the rest of the league's attention.
And they've continued to win, taking three of their last four conference series, putting themselves in position to contend for the Big 12 title, as well as an NCAA Tournament berth.
Not bad for a team in a new (and improved) league with a first-year coach in Mazey. For a program coming off a losing season and with its last postseason berth dating back 17 years. For a team displaced from its home ballpark while renovations take place. For at team facing rugged travel itineraries into foreign destinations.
“We went into this season expecting a lot of adversity with our travel issues, how tough it was going to be academically on our kids, being on the road so much,” Mazey said. “We prepared them for the adversity and being picked to finish last.”
Then midstream, Mazey had to scrap his game plan.
“Once we started having some success and it looked like we had chance to win the league,” he said, “then we had to flip it and teach them how to handle the success. We had to change approaches with them. And they've responded very well.”
Sophomore Harrison Musgrave has been among the league's best starting pitchers, sitting at 8-1 with a 2.14 earned run average, three complete games and three shutouts. The Mountaineers hit well, with a .281 team batting average, led by third baseman Ryan Tuntland's .343 mark. Left fielder Jacob Rice, a Tulsa Union product, ranks ninth in the Big 12 in hits per game.
And then there's Mazey, hailed by Big 12 coaches as a spot-on hire last June.
Not only was Mazey a respected game manager, he was familiar with the league's teams and the area's recruiting landscape, having served the past six seasons as an assistant at TCU.
“I tell our guys every series what to expect out of these teams,” Mazey said. “I think it kind of gave us a little bit of a calming affect, that you're not going into it completely blind and not knowing what to expect.
“I just tried to convince our guys that, ‘Hey, I know all these programs. Based on me being around you guys as long as I have, you're as good. Don't feel any intimidation at all. Go out and do what you do, play hard, and you should have some success.'”
And they've done just that, carrying little hope for a Big 12 championship.
And that's not a bad thing.