The Mountaineers have just four seniors, a very low number even in a sport that routinely sees underclassmen leave for minor league chances. Factor in six juniors, and 24 of WVU's 34 players are sophomores or freshmen. That might seem a nearly insurmountable dearth of experience, especially when much of it will come up the middle, where teams need to be strongest. Outside of shortstop Tyler Kuhn, a speedy threat who was drafted in the 33rd round by Cleveland but chose to return for his senior year, the Mountaineers could have new starters at catcher, second base and two outfield slots, including centerfield.
"We have a smaller senior class, but we have some talented players who are working hard," said head coach Greg Van Zant, 378-323-1 in 13 years. "We have a chance. We are young and inexperienced and nobody is giving us any chance at all. But we think we have a chance."
The biggest losses were pitchers Kenny Durst and Levi Maxwell and outfielders Justin Jenkins and Adam White. Jenkins, an all-Big East selection, manned center while White played left. Van Zant noted that freshmen Mark Dvoroznak and Grant Buckner, an Elkview, W.Va. native, will open the year at center and left, while junior Austin Markel returns in right. Markel batted .324 with four home runs and 36 RBI in 51 games last year. Around the horn, lefty hitter Vince Belnome will star at third, with Jedd Gyorko manning second and Joe Agreste at first. Belnome is a proven commodity, while Gyroko flashed the ability to be a power and contact hitting threat as a three-time all-state player at University High. Agreste, a junior, hit and throws left-handed. The Potomac State transfer was drafted in the 32nd round, but turned down a contract offer to return. He has fully recovered from an arm injury that sidelined him last season.
"It's not realistic to expect freshmen to put up numbers like Jenkins and White did," Van Zant said. "But I think we have several strengths. I think we can hit the ball. We have good hitters at every position. It's a matter of our young hitters getting at-bats and getting experience and gaining confidence. Some of these guys could start off struggling. As good as we think Jedd Gyorko will be, he could start off struggling.
"He is an exceptional kid. He can hit. He has real good hands and is real athletic. He will make mistakes like every freshman but we have a lot of confidence in him. Vince Belnome looks real good. He looks like he was never hurt. He can make the slow-roller play and the kid can hit. We have some ability."
Van Zant could platoon the catching spot with Justin Parks and freshman Tobias Streich, who had an offer from the Oakland A's. Parks, a junior from Columbus, Ohio, is an excellent defensive player who can run well. Streich was very highly rated, however, and will get chances to earn time. The expected rotation for this weekend's games – West Virginia is slated to play Akron in a four-game series as pat of a tournament in Winston-Salem – is Matt Yurish, Josh Whitlock and Billy Gross. Yurish won four games as a junior and has an 11-9 career mark. The lefthander made 12 starts and had a 4.48 earned run average in 82 1/3 innings pitched. Whitlock was 7-5 with a 3.51 ERA. He tallied 69 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings pitched. Gross was 5-1 with a 5.91 ERA in 32 innings. The fourth starter slot is open, but could be filled by a transfer as Ross Fetterly, from Old Dominion, or Steve Morrison, from Ursinus College. Morrison went 1-1 in 12 appearances with 32 innings pitched.
The designated hitter is expected to be Chris Enourato, who will also close. He had five saves as a freshman, but it too valuable at the plate to simply keep him only in a closer role. Enourato could also play first base.
"Chris Onerato as a closer will compete for you," Van Zant said. "That's all you can ask. We want to get Chris 30-40 appearances. Get bat in lineup and use him on the mound and at first."
West Virginia went 29-22 last season, but lost its final game of the year to finish ninth in the 12-team Big East, one spot from making the league tournament. The Mountaineers were picked 10th this year with its youngest team ever under Van Zant.
"Probably the toughest loss in my career as a coach was losing that last game at home," Van Zant said. "That cost us a 30-win season and a trip to the Big East Tournament. We were all disappointed in that. But I don't think that's had any bearing whatsoever on this team. We had 16 losses in the league last year, so it wasn't just that game that cost us. We won that series with Georgetown, taking two of three, and if you do that every time out, you don't have to worry about getting into that eighth spot."