West Virginia Looks For Breakthrough After Coming Within Three Outs Of NCAA Bid Last Year

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It couldn't have been any closer, West Virginia's attempt to grab its first NCAA Regional bid in 20 years last season.

The Mountaineers had buried themselves at just 19-18 and 5-8 in the Big 12 going into the finale' of their fourth conference series of the season last year. They had been swept by Canisius in a two-game set, dropped two of three to Kansas State and been embarrassed in losing yet another series to Furman - and that was coming into the final game at Oklahoma, one West Virginia had to get to simply salvage one contest in the series. It looked, and rightfully so to that point, that WVU was simply playing out the string of what would be a sub-.500 season and another in the building of the program's foundation.

It was a setback to that point, after West Virginia had seemed an NCAA lock two seasons prior, then suffered a massive late-season collapse that left them, on some pundits brackets, as the first team out. Traction for Randy Mazey's program has slipping away, and there was little to be done with Jackson Cramer mired in a slump and the inability to avoid the big inning. But somewhere between the plans of Oklahoma, where WVU got that final game, and a blistering of Baylor and Texas during a 13-1 stretch, the Mountaineers turned the corner, both mentally and physically as a program.

The young players matured, from catcher-turned third baseman Ivan Vera (now Rodriguez) to middle infielders Cole Austin and Jimmy Galusky, to outfielders Kyle Gray and Darius Hill - all of whom were freshmen. The pitching staff got clutch performances, including Ross Vance's after scheduled starter Michael Grove was injured in the first inning of the Big 12 Tournament opener against Oklahoma. Vance slammed the door on the Sooners, throwing 8.2 shutout innings of two-hit ball as WVU thrived and advanced.

Suddenly, West Virginia was the hottest team in baseball, having won 17 of their last 20 games, including blowouts of Oklahoma (twice) and Texas Tech in the Big 12 Tournament that put the Mountaineers in the championship game against top-seeded TCU. Take out the Horned Frogs in the final, and WVU would gain a bid to the NCAAs for the first time since 1996. After falling behind 8-0, the Mountaineers rallied and led Texas Christian 10-9 going into the ninth. Alas, TCU tied the game with two outs and won it in extra innings, the dream again falling by the wayside for West Virginia at 33-22 overall, 12-11 in conference.

One couldn't get any closer. Since the hot stretch began on April 24 of that season, the Mountaineers' RPI from that point on ranked seventh in the country, and raised the overall RPI 59 spots to 60th in the NCAA. But three outs or one spot away, it makes no difference. WVU received no at-large bid, and the offseason began again, far to early for Mazey and the handful of seniors lost. Still, West Virginia returns the majority of its line-up this season, and has added key pieces from the prep ranks while also bringing back three potential weekend starters in Grove, a right-hander from Wheeling, W.Va., fellow righty BJ Myers and Connor Dotson, a 6-4 right-hander who went 7-4 last season with a 4.44 ERA.

With the return of Cramer to anchor the middle of the line-up for a third consecutive season and Gonzales and Hill expected to produce another 40-plus RBI season while hitting .300, the Mountaineers have the pieces to compete in the upper echelon of a Big 12 conference which boasts a near unanimous preseason No. 1 in TCU. Add in the steadying presence of Kyle Davis, and the blend of speed and power, and Mazey has arguably his most balanced team during his five seasons at West Virginia, which opened team practice Jan. 27.

"This group needs to play with an edge and play like they are mad, and they need to be because there was a whole group of people last year who told them they weren't good enough," Mazey said. "That's a pretty good sign going into this year that they are going out to prove how good they are. We've got our guys back from last year who have had some success and we have added guys to that. We have some pretty good depth in the line-up this year where we can interchange some guys and rest some guys when we need to.

"I am excited about the offense we can put out there. We got a great mix. We have four or five guys who can hit double-digit homers and of they guys that don't, we have guys who can play small ball. That's a really neat mix. You look at Coastal Carolina, who won the national championship last year, and that's what they did. A lot of guys hit homers, but they were in the top 10 in the nation in sacrifice bunts, too. (Then) three veteran guys who have been here ( for starting pitching). Those guys could be as good as anybody out there."

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