Mike Casazza: Schedule put WVU baseball in position for possible NCAA tournament berth

MORGANTOWN, W.Va — The final series at Hawley Field over the weekend produced three of the five-largest crowds in stadium history. Perhaps more importantly for West Virginia’s baseball team as it proceeds toward an NCAA tournament appearance, there were also two wins in three games against the 11th-ranked team in the country.

The whole scene brought to life something that had only existed in coach Randy Mazey’s mind since he was hired off the TCU staff 23 months ago.

“As I was going out to coach third base, I looked around at the crowd gathered down the third base line, at all the people standing on the bank, I looked behind the plate and the stands were full and down the right field line and all the stands were full,” Mazey said. “We’re playing against Texas, we’ve got all the alumni in there, we’re playing pretty well, that’s pretty much exactly what I had envisioned when I came here a couple years ago.”

WVU played before crowds of 1,552 on Friday, 1,624 on Saturday and 2,237 on Saturday, and that kind of showing figures to anchor the Mountaineers to Morgantown in the future. And that makes tonight’s game in Princeton something of an endangered species.

The Mountaineers played only eight games at Hawley Field last season and none in Big 12 play. Those went instead to parks in Charleston and Beckley. WVU switched it up this season and played non-conference games against Pitt, Ohio State, Maryland and Marshall and all but one Big 12 home series at Hawley Field, and the crowds grew to be great.

This 6 p.m. non-conference game against Virginia Tech at sold-out, 1,700-seat Hunnicutt Field in Princeton, or one-time games in other parts of the state, will no longer be a necessity, but instead exceedingly rare once WVU moves into its new ballpark in Granville next season.

“We’re probably going to try to use our brand-new, multi-million dollar facility as much as we possibly can,” Mazey said. “We’ll have to see what the future holds on that one, but if we can get home games and if people in Morgantown are going to really support us locally here and if we can attract great crowds, we’re going to spend a majority of our time at home probably.

“But if ever the opportunity arises for me to get out and see a different part of the state and meet WVU fans from all over, I’d be more than happy to entertain it.”

So no more ventures to the southern part of the state, and that’s fine because Mazey can afford to be more selective, never mind to actually play at his own park, because of what happens in the early part of the season. WVU played its first 20 games away from home. It was 33 degrees at game time for the first game at Hawley Field. When Ohio State visited three weeks later, it was a degree cooler at the start and snow fell throughout the 4-1 win.

Such is life for a team in the north, and it’s worked for WVU (26-17, 9-8 Big 12). The team that hasn’t been in the NCAA tournament since 1996 is reasonably close now thanks in large part to playing in the Big 12, but also because the Mountaineers play in a place where home games are just about impossible in the first month or so of the season.

The climate that was once used to explain why the program lacked a postseason resume is now the reason why the Mountaineers are where they are so late in the season.

“Fortunately, or unfortunately, the part of the country we’re in, we just can’t play at home as much, but that’s helped us in a way,” Mazey said.

WVU was No. 22 in Monday’s RPI and the strength of schedule ranked No. 30, and those numbers will be shaped by the final two non-conference games and two conference series. Still, it was the opening sequence of the season that gave meaning to the forthcoming finish.

“I don’t think it does anybody any good if you just go out and play games that aren’t all that competitive,” Mazey said. “From a recruiting standpoint, a fan standpoint and a player’s standpoint, we want to play the best schedule we can.”

Before they even began playing Big 12 teams, the Mountaineers were 6-5 in non-conference games against teams in the RPI top 100. They had to go to separate tournaments in South Carolina and one in California, plus series in California and in North Carolina, to do it.

Mazey was even careful to play a road game while traveling for some road series. The Mountaineers lost 4-3 to UNLV (No. 28 in the RPI) on the way to taking two out of three against Cal State Northridge. WVU then beat North Carolina (No. 57) on the way to losing two out of three to UNC Wilmington (No. 80).

“We’re the type of team that’ll play anybody anywhere,” Mazey said. “We took on North Carolina with 24 hours notice in Chapel Hill. If they’re going to make the RPI the big reason how you get in the postseason, we’re going to try to play as many RPI games as we can.”

That happens plenty in February and March, so much so that WVU can now line up mid-week games at home in the future. It’s already started. When Big 12 play began, the Mountaineers beat Ohio State (No. 89) and Maryland (No. 47) in mid-week games at home. They were scheduled to play Marshall in Charleston, but that was rained out twice. In the future, there’ll be no need to be shamed by the home field and travel hours from campus to play a game.

The reward for taking on the Hokies (19-27, No. 126) is minimal, though a second game at Maryland next week can be a boost. The Mountaineers also play three games this weekend at Kansas and finish the regular season with three games at Texas Tech.

Kansas (30-20, 10-9) has won seven straight games. The Jayhawks are in third place in the Big 12, one spot ahead of WVU, and No. 36 in the RPI. Texas Tech (36-16, 11-10) was swept at Kansas over the weekend, but is still No. 16 in the RPI and is 28-4 at home. The Big 12 tournament follows that.

“I don’t think there’s anything you have to do, per se, as much as I think you’ve just got to go out and try to win as many games as you can,” Mazey said of the NCAA tournament. “The people who make those decisions make them the best they can. It does help if you can finish strong, and I think we can finish strong.”

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