The idea of leadership, and especially senior leadership, has been reduced to a cliché in many corners of the sports world. Rosters loaded with final year players are automatically assumed to have good leadership, while those with a paucity of upperclassmen will inevitably be tagged as lacking in such whenever a losing streak or tough times occur. In reality, though, those automatics are anything but, as has been clearly demonstrated over the years. The maturity of players, their performance on the field and even the differences between sports are all factors.
Senior pitcher Ross Vance, one of the group of four final year players that includes KC Huth, Jeff Hardy and Blake Smith, sees a group of self-starters who don't need a great deal of leadership to get things done the right way.
“With this team it doesn't seem to be that way at all,” he said of any concerns about a lack of example-setting. “The seniors do get looked to for some answers, but we have a lot of natural leaders on this team. The whole team kind of leads itself because everyone knows what to do. The seniors do kind of show the way because they have been here the longest, but no one really needs a lot of guidance.”
Batterymate Ray Guerrini, heading into his junior WVU season behind the plate, sees the experience of well-traveled players as important, and finds leadership developing as part of a natural process.
“The seniors are experienced, and they have a wide background and knowledge of baseball,” he explained, noting that some have been at different schools before coming to WVU. “They've seen how it's done at different places, and on different teams. You also find them as everyone does their part. Those guys doing it by example, taking extra practice, they develop into leaders.”
Both Guerrini and Vance believe that leadership isn't limited to just the “old” guys, though. Younger players can also move into that role, but early production does help them have more influence on the team. That's not the only thing that comes into play, but there has to be at least some level of productivity on the field to help move them along.
“Guys like KC Huth and Kyle Davis – people look to him because he had so much success last year. – are leaders too,” Vance said. “You have to have some production as a young player in order to be a leader, but maybe more important is having a natural ability to lead. Davis has a charisma, and you can tell he wants to get better. That's where it really shows. The best leaders, in my opinion, are the ones who lead by example and get their work done every day.”
Not surprisingly, Guerrini echoes some of those thoughts. Catchers are often hubs of the team, what with their unique relationships with the pitching staff and job in helping direct the defense. If there's anyone who has an inside track to having the pulse of the team, its the guys behind the plate, and the Highland Heights, Oh., native emphasizes the importance of those who get their work done and lead by example. It's those players who have the chance to have the biggest influence on their teammates.
For his part, Davis acknowledges that he can be that lead-by-example guy, but he isn't challenging the voice of the upperclassmen yet. Despite a season in which he led the team in batting average, hits, runs, doubles and on-base percentage, he is still deferential to the old guard.
“I think I can be a leader with my actions,” the Cincinnati, Oh., native said. “As a sophomore, I am not sure if I have earned the right to be a leader verbally. I do try to help the seniors when I can, and I will do whatever they need me to do. But I just need to hustle everywhere and do my job, and be a leader with what I do. As the season continues and my years continue that is something that I want to be more a part of.”
Vance also noted that the very nature of the sport tends toward differences in leadership and the way it's exhibited. The game separates those who can play from those who can't very quickly, and also throws down a definitive judgment on each play, many of which are dependent on the performance of just one player.
“I think baseball is different [than other sports],” the wily pitcher noted. “Take football, for instance. If a lineman misses a block, there's someone else behind him that might be able to pick him up, and the play can continue. In baseball, if the shortstop makes an error, it's been made. You can only move on to the next play. In a lot of other sports there's the freedom to pick up the guy next to you, but in baseball there's only the opportunity to make the next play.”
The leadership in that situation comes in with the way a player handles a mistake and how his teammates pick him up mentally. There's encouraging words, to be sure, but there's also showing trust and confidence that they'll make the play the next time.
Add all those things up, and West Virginia's players believe they are set in the leadership department. Vance and others see their teammates doing the right things through the fall and during preseason practice, and believe they are approaching the game with a full deck in the leadership department. Of course, it really gets tested during the grind of the season, and that's when the judgments of the character of this team will be made.
WVU opens the season this weekend in Charleston, S.C. with a three-game set agaisnt Charleston Southern. Gametimes are Friday and Saturday at 11:00 a.m., with Sunday's closer starting at 10:00 a.m.