By MIKE CASAZZA
DAILY MAIL SPORTSWRITER
MORGANTOWN, W.Va — Whether it’s the penultimate stop or the final weekend, West Virginia’s baseball team is near the end of the season.
It began in the fall with practices and intrasquad scrimmages well before the season opened on Valentine’s Day in Charleston, S.C. After 50 regular season games, the Mountaineers begin the Big 12 tournament Wednesday with a 10 a.m. game against Kansas at Oklahoma City’s Bricktown Ballpark.
And to underscore the length and the drain of the season, WVU has played its past seven games on the road and has been traveling since last Wednesday. The Mountaineers headed to Texas Tech before starting a three-game series a day later and then bused Sunday from Lubbock, Texas, to the tournament. They arrived with the weight of the losing streak but the inspiration of a potential NCAA tournament berth.
WVU was No. 29 in Tuesday’s RPI and had played the nation’s 20th-most difficult schedule, but the team is 27-23 overall and 9-14 in the Big 12. Simply put, the Mountaineers have to make a run deep into the tournament, and might even have to win it, if they want to play in the postseason for the first time since 1996.
Surrounded by one another and alone with their thoughts, it’s no secret what WVU has been talking about all this time.
“We always try and talk to our guys and teach them about life lessons,” West Virginia coach Randy Mazey said. “It’s not all about fielding backhands and hitting curveballs and stealing bases.”
It’s about persevering through the season. It’s about dragging yourself to the finish line after being swept by a Red Raiders team that finished 31-4 at home. It’s about accepting circumstances and getting past the fact the Mountaineers were 11-4 at home — and two of those games were in Charleston. It’s about weathering the ups and downs and knowing when and how to get back up when it matters most.
And the lessons are not always learned through baseball, which was what led WVU back to Moore, Okla., Tuesday, a year after an EF5 tornado ripped through the town with no conscience and destroyed whatever was in its path. It’s where WVU lent a hand, famously going to a local Walmart and shopping for supplies to hand out to victims before visiting a shelter and displaced victims in Norman.
“Twenty years from now, you won’t remember how many hits you got against Kansas in the first game of the tournament, but you’ll remember the impact you made on lives and the friends you made and the relationships you made when people needed you,” Mazey said. “This is really important. I think the guys get something out of it.”
On the eve of an event that will shape the eventual fate of the season, WVU met up with Mark and Katrina Ellerd, a couple of homeowners they met in Moore last year who have since become fans of the Mountaineers. WVU’s players spent a few hours last year helping the Ellerds remove debris from their home, which had been leveled by the tornado.
The Ellerds both wore WVU T-shirts Tuesday and the Mountaineers witnessed dramatic changes in the rebuilt parts of the city while being reminded about the valor of resiliency, something they saw in earnest a year ago.
“What impacted me the most was the people and our kids and the willingness to help people who were in desperate need,” Mazey said. “But more than that was the resiliency of the people from Moore as you walked around and talked to them as they were sitting in lawn chairs next to their homes that looked like a bunch of toothpicks.
“Their mentality, their resiliency, their power to build and to say, ‘Hey, it’s only material possessions. We’ve still got our health, we’ve still got our family,’ that goes a long way with kids and with me, to see people who show that no matter what happens, they’re going to stand up and hold their heads up high and beat this thing and come back stronger than ever.”
The Mountaineers have work of their own to do, and the inspiration couldn’t have hurt. They received another morale boost Tuesday when center fielder Bobby Boyd and second baseman Billy Fleming were named first-team all-Big 12. Left-handed pitcher Harrison Musgrave, who will start Wednesday against the Jayhawks (34-22, 15-9), and first baseman Ryan McBroom made the second team. Catcher Cam O’Brien, shortstop Taylor Munden, starting pitchers John Means and Casey Vance and closer Sean Carley were honorable mention picks.
WVU, seeded sixth in the Big 12, has been outscored only 34-20 in its losing streak. It began with a three-game sweep at No. 3-seed Kansas and a 19-16 scoring margin for the Jayhawks. It concluded with the bad weekend at Texas Tech, where WVU was shut out once and lost a pair of walk-off games, but also left 33 runners on base and 20 in scoring position.
Musgrave, the Big 12’s pitcher of the year last season, will likely oppose Kansas starter Frank Duncan (6-2, 2.28 ERA), who was a first-team all-conference selection. Mazey said Means and Vance will follow for WVU. The bullpen will be at the ready when needed for the double-elimination event that concludes Sunday.
“Some people are going to have to pitch on short rest,” Mazey said. “It depends. I think we’re still fighting to try to get in the postseason, so we’re going to have to do what we have to do to win a couple games. I think everyone above us feels good, like they’re already in, so we’ve got to play like we’ve got something to prove, which means we’ll have to have all hands on deck so we can win some games.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.