MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Don't you just have to continue to be amazed at two things regarding West Virginia's baseball team?First, of course, is the team's success. That goes without saying.Get this: In the last nine years, WVU's final RPI rating averaged No. 133 (there are currently 298 schools playing Division I baseball). Only once in that span did the Mountaineers finish in the top 100 - barely. They were No. 97 in 2009.Today, West Virginia is No. 68. OK, so that's not exactly elite, but it's upper crust.
The kicker, of course, is that the No. 133 average came while playing in the Big East, which this year ranks ninth among conferences in RPI strength. Today's No. 68 ranking comes as a member of the fourth-best league in the country (behind the ACC, SEC and Pac-12), the Big 12, where the Mountaineers sit tied for first place.Still, WVU's on-field success is perhaps not even as surprising as this: People actually seem to care. How much? Well, that's the fascinating part.Consider that in four games last week - one against Pitt in Morgantown at Hawley Field and three in Charleston against No. 10 Oklahoma - West Virginia went 2-2 and drew 9,907 fans. Every one of those games drew a crowd larger than what had been the record at Hawley Field (1,174) before last Tuesday night's game with Pitt.By contrast, in 23 dates last season at Hawley, the Mountaineers went 15-11 (including three doubleheaders) and drew 8,475 fans. Only once did they draw over 1,000, barely. The norm was in the 200-400 range.
Think about that. In four games last week, West Virginia drew 1,432 more fans than the team drew all last season.If you hadn't considered it, know that Oliver Luck has. The West Virginia athletic director is looking fairly smart these days for all that he's done with the program - namely bringing in a new coach and pushing hard for a new stadium.He's not going to say "I told you so,'' but perhaps he has every right."Let's just say I'm encouraged to see that baseball has this kind of support,'' Luck said. "I think baseball fans are kind of coming out of the closet now.''
Luck has been hearing his entire adult life about how West Virginia - the state, not the university - had such a strong baseball culture. And he's right. It goes back to the early 1900s when towns in the state had semi-pro teams and extends today to the minor league franchises that dot the southern part of the state.But that never translated to WVU baseball."It always bothered me that people would talk about the great baseball culture in the state, but that never manifested itself [at WVU],'' Luck said. "It bothered me that when basketball season was over, the only thing people talked about looking forward to was the spring [football] game. Baseball is a great sport. It deserves more attention.''
All it took to get it going at the school was a little of that attention. Luck praises the first-year baseball coach he hired to run the program, Randy Mazey, for the remarkable job he's done in a short time. But he won't criticize Mazey's predecessor because he was working under some trying circumstances."You can't say anything bad about Greg Van Zant because remember, he recruited most of these players,'' Luck said.Still, a change was necessary, if for no other reason than the program was so stale and needed a shot of adrenaline."But there were some pretty easy decisions to make regarding the baseball program that didn't involve coaching,'' Luck said. "Like giving them a locker room. Think about how much time a baseball team spends in a locker room or a clubhouse. That's where a team bonds. And these guys were dressing in their cars."It was kind of like fully funding the rifle team's scholarships. It wasn't that hard to do and it makes such a big difference.''Everything, it seems, has worked together to make a difference for this team. With two series remaining - this weekend against TCU at Appalachian Power Park and next weekend at Oklahoma State - West Virginia is tied for first in the Big 12. But no matter how things turn out in those two series and beyond that, so much has already been accomplished.
Just count the wins and the people in the stands to know that.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.