Riverside took rocky road to first state baseball tournament
That Riverside has finally broken through to the state tournament after years of losing is a remarkable story in itself.
However, that the Warriors have managed to do it this season — in which they’re on their third coach in less than a year’s time — makes it all the more noteworthy.
Welcome to the wacky world of the Warriors, where reality may have exceeded expectations.
“It is great,’’ said senior pitcher-infielder Cameron Norris, the team’s top player. “It really is.’’
It’s not that Riverside hasn’t been close to the state tournament before — heck, the Warriors lost in the regional finals each of the last two years under former coach Chris Hawkins, who left at season’s end to live in Hawaii.
But their record those two seasons was a mere 33-32, and their presence in the Region 3 finals had a lot to do with the fact that most of the other Mountain State Athletic Conference power teams were lodged in Region 4.
Still, to navigate the road they did this season took a lot of skill — and courage.
n First, the Warriors lost their head coach. Trey Barcus, hired to replace Hawkins, resigned on March 28 after the team had played just two games. Barcus stepped down after allegedly striking a player at practice and was replaced by assistant Patrick Vogelsang.
n Then, Riverside started losing big. Three of its first eight games resulted in 10-run losses. When the postseason began, the Warriors were 10-1 against Class AA and A teams and 4-9 versus their own class.
But the postseason offered a second chance, and the Warriors took it.
n After going 1-2 against Ripley and Capital in the regular season, the Warriors buzzed through their three-team sectional, sweeping two games against each — three of them by a single run.
n In the regional semifinals against George Washington — a team that blanked Riverside 10-0 in six innings on April 22 — Norris fired a three-hitter in a 1-0 Warriors win.
n Then it was one more bit of redemption in the regional finals as the Warriors vaulted to a 9-4 win against Greenbrier East, a team that bludgeoned Riverside 16-7 on April 19.
Riverside, a program with just six winning seasons in its history, was finally over the hump and headed to the state tournament. The Warriors meet Wheeling Park at about 12:45 p.m. Friday in the state semifinals at Appalachian Power Park.
“These kids had been hearing about how they fell short the last few years,’’ Vogelsang said, “so this is a big deal for them. But at the same time — and maybe I’m a little different — but I think it’s something where you don’t want to be happy with being in the regional finals or happy with being in the states. We’re stressing that we want more, and I think the kids feel the same way.
“We’re excited to have reached a new level in Riverside athletics, but at the same time, we’re still striving.’’
Vogelsang can be excused for not remembering the team’s past postseason problems. After all, he’s so fresh to the Kanawha Valley that his cell phone number still carries a California area code.
He’s heard all the nay-saying, some of which probably emanates from the team’s own fan base, but he continually stresses the same message to his players: expect success. Why stop now?
“Absolutely, you’re always going to have that,’’ he said of the pessimism. “But I know the 15 kids we have in the dugout and I know the coaches we have, and we believe in ourselves. I don’t really see this as a surprise. I see this as something we expected.
“If you look for a common denominator for all the teams in triple-A, it’s that all those teams expected to be there at the state tournament. If you start the season not expecting to get there, you won’t get there. It’s somewhat of a new attitude and not a common thought, but that’s what I believe and what the kids believe as well. It’s the attitude we have that we expect to win.’’
In the postseason, it’s been nothing but W’s for the Warriors, as they’ve gone 6-0. One more victory would match the school record of 20 wins set by the 2012 squad (see chart).
Norris has been a big contributor to that success, evidenced by his pitching stats — 8-1 record, 1.36 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings. With a .382 batting average, he’s also the team’s third-best hitter, trailing Trevor Smith (.429, 23 stolen bases) and Derik Chestnut (.417, 32 stolen bases).
“He’s been a huge part of our team,’’ Vogelsang said of Norris. “He’s been awesome, phenomenal. You know what you’re getting out of him — consistently good play.
“But we wouldn’t be where we are without the other kids in our lineup, too, any one of the 15. They don’t always know if they’re going to be in the same position, but they all have their roles and they all bust their chops to do what’s best for the team.’’
Both Vogelsang and Norris also dished credit to Barcus for his preseason preparations.
“As Coach Barcus said at the beginning of the season, we have to play for the five seniors on the team,’’ Norris said. “All the guys took that to heart. Coach V has been preaching mental toughness, and I guess that’s gotten us mentally strong and able to play.’’
Vogelsang said the Warriors are better for the short period that Barcus was their coach.
“We’re grateful for the little time we had with him,’’ Vogelsang said. “They’ve all benefited from the time they had with him. They’ve been so mature and able to handle things, it’s been unreal. It’s hard to put into words. This is not what normal high school teams go through. This is not a normal situation. But the fact these kids overcame it is unbelievable and speaks volumes about their character and mental toughness they’ve developed and the maturity they have.
“Trey Barcus’ impact is still visible on this team. A lot of people are hitting so much better and pitching so much better. A lot of the game is fundamentals, and we wouldn’t be here without him and those first several months.’’
Norris said the oft-bumpy ride has been worth it.
“Personally, it means so much to me,’’ he said. “It was my last chance to get to Power Park. All I can do is thank my teammates for really pushing us through the season, and for staying together as a family. All the credit goes to them.’’
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or email@example.com.