If there was any doubt about if members of the West Virginia University baseball team have moved on from how last season ended, let me just cut to the chase and tell you: they haven’t.
The Mountaineers had one of the best individual seasons in program history in 2019 as WVU became a fixture in the Top 25 polls, nearly won the Big 12 tournament, served as a host for the NCAA tournament regional round and saw eight players drafted — including Toronto Blue Jays first-round pick Alek Manoah.
But the way it all ended, with Texas A&M celebrating a walk-off grand slam win to eliminate the Mountaineers from the NCAA tournament on their home field after West Virginia was one strike away from ending the game, has lingered with the players. Now, with the 2020 season set to begin in a few weeks, those that are still around from last season’s team are quick to point out just how much that hurt.
Junior infielder Tyler Doanes, who started 59 games at second base for West Virginia last season, said he remembers the headlines and the photos of he and his teammates in the moments that followed the Aggies’ stunning shot to bring a sudden end to the season.
“I have it hanging on my wall as a reminder that we didn’t make it last year,” Doanes said. “That’s a bad taste in all of our mouths.
“Remember how that felt. It was awful. If you can get one more rep in the weight room; if you can eat one more meal correctly; if you can take one more swing — that’s the kind of feeling I want to remember.”
Doanes will be one of a few familiar faces for the Mountaineers this season, and he, along well junior catcher Paul McIntosh, will likely be leaned on for leadership by a team that appears to be high on potential but short on experience. The 2020 WVU baseball team has a tough act to follow, but have the bar so high by last season’s team is hardly a bad thing. There are expectations within the program that, quite frankly, had not been there prior to Randy Mazey’s arrival in Morgantown.
Outside the program, on the other hand, expectations are not as high. The Mountaineers were carried at times last season by a handful of players, and most of those guys are now professionals. Manoah was the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year and among the best collegiate pitchers in country. Nick Snyder was fantastic as West Virginia’s mid-week starter. Veteran catcher Ivan “Pudge” Gonzalez was the backbone of the team and guiding force for a standout pitching staff. That’s not even the entire list, but you get the idea. League coaches saw what West Virginia lost and picked the Mountaineers to finish seventh in the Big 12 (though one coach did pick WVU in first).
There aren’t many people outside the program that think West Virginia can reach the heights achieved last season, and perhaps that’s just how the Mountaineers like it. The new players have big shoes to fill, there is no doubt about that.
“I think they’re taking the West Virginia identity, if that makes sense,” Doanes said of the new players on the team. “We’re ranked to finish seventh in the Big 12, and I keep telling all the freshman, “No one knows y’all. Go make a name for yourself.’ That’s the fun part. That’s the reason you want to come to West Virginia University, because no one thinks about us.
The new players are not the only ones having to adapt to different situations this season. Preseason All-Big 12 pick Paul McIntosh — a junior and a solid part of the WVU lineup mostly as a designated hitter in the past — will be expected to take over a lot of innings at catcher this season.
“I’m still going to go about my business the same as I did before,” McIntosh said. “Obviously I’m going to have more on my plate this year. I’m ready for that, and I’ve prepared for it. I got to see what Pudge did all last year and I looked up to him. Now it’s my turn to contribute.”
The Mountaineers open the season on Feb. 14 with a three-game, weekend series at Jacksonville before hosting Canisius to open the home portion of the schedule on Feb. 18. West Virginia also has non-conference home games scheduled against Maryland, Arkon, Marshall and Pitt among others in addition to hosting Texas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Baylor for weekend sets in Big 12 play. Even if the Mountaineers are not as good as they were in 2019, that looks like a schedule with potential for some good times for a fan base that fell in love with its baseball program last season.
“I think we’re a fun team to be around,” Doanes said. “We have good energy all the time. it’s not one of those hostile environments. If you make an error it’s on to the next pitch. It’s on to the next thing — we’re just a fun team to be around.”