CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- This week's West Virginia Conference baseball tournament sure won't be the first in Cal Bailey's long and successful career at West Virginia State, but it will be his last.In fact, it will be everyone's last before the league dissolves and the Yellow Jackets and several other programs take their act to the newly formed Mountain East Conference.Bailey, who has led State to 17 conference championships since taking over the program in 1978, will try to add an 18th and final title this week at Linda K. Epling Stadium in Beckley as the eight-team, double-elimination tournament gets underway at 9:30 a.m. today. The tournament will conclude on Saturday, weather permitting.Bailey took a moment to reflect on the league, the conference tournament, and the history and memories he has made over the past 35 years.
"Honestly, I'm going to miss the conference - I wasn't a proponent of the new conference and, of course, no one asked me either," Bailey said. "There's a lot of history, a lot of friendships and schools, and playing them in a conference situation is what I'm going to miss. Now, I don't know how many of them will miss us."I remember playing in Parkersburg, at the old Watt Powell Park, in Bluefield, in Johnstown, in Beckley, and Princeton - I made a lot of friends in those places and I'll miss seeing them. Every place hosted us well and we made fans in each one of those towns."Bailey has been around long enough to make those kinds of connections and to be filled with that sense of nostalgia, but his current players have not.Bailey said he has spoken to his squad about the WVC's history and traditions on several occasions throughout the year."It's not a one-time lecture or anything like that," Bailey said. "They ask questions like, 'What about this? What about that? How was it when this happened?' And I tell them stories about things. Old players will come to see me sometime and they'll say they've heard of that guy and I'll tell a story about the conference tournament and just try to give them that sense of tradition."Whether State's players have an appreciation for that tradition is unknown, but one thing is for certain - they are playing like a traditional Cal Bailey Yellow Jackets team, especially as of late.After a rough 2-10 start, State turned the tables to finish 27-17 overall and 24-8 in the league, which was good enough to earn the No. 1 seed in the South Division.The Yellow Jackets will enter the tournament as hot as any team in the league, having won 17 of its last 21 games and finishing off the season with a satisfying three-game sweep over rival Charleston."It has felt pretty good considering I think we were picked to finish in fifth place in the preseason," Bailey said. "[Early in the season] we got distracted a little bit with the building going on here and a lack of practice time and use of the gym, and we went south and played teams that had played 30 or 35 games and it's tough to compete with that. Then we came back and lost a doubleheader to Seton Hill, who's been the premier team in the league the last couple of years, and we thought we hung right in there with them. We're pleased we're in a position to maybe win the conference and get an automatic bid into the regionals."Indeed, the Griffins (37-13, 27-4) enter the tournament as the No. 1 seed from the North Division and own a pair of early-season wins over the Yellow Jackets. Shepherd (25-20, 21-10), the No. 2 seed from the North, also beat State twice in the regular season.But despite his team's 0-4 mark against the top teams from the North, Bailey said his team can compete with either of them this week.
"In the Shepherd series, we had a Wednesday doubleheader, three games on Friday and Saturday, then turned around and took a six-hour bus ride and stunk it up. It was an eye-opener, I think. We weren't really concentrating and we ran into a buzz saw. But I don't think it's so much a matter of what we need to do, what we don't need to do, we just need to play our game."State will begin its quest against the North's No. 4 seed, Fairmont State, in the late game at 6:30 p.m.South No. 2 Concord will play North No. 3 West Liberty in the opener and will be followed by Seton Hill vs. South No. 4 Charleston at 12:30 p.m. Shepherd will take on South No. 3 Davis & Elkins at 3:30 p.m.Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him at twitter.com/RPritt.