Play Ball!

With the snow and cold temperatures that have been pounding Morgantown for the better part of a month, it might be hard to even fathom that baseball season is around the corner. But a WVU team that shows some promise has been hard at work preparing to begin its season Friday, when it travels to the warmer climes of the southeast.

The boys of summer will escape winter's chill by heading to South Carolina for the Caravelle Resort Tournament in the town of Conway.

There, they will promptly face a tough test in No. 12 Coastal Carolina, the tournament's host. Things get little easier on Saturday, when they face an often-tough Kentucky team.

That's just the start of one of the most ambitious out-of-conference schedules taken on by the Mountaineers in many seasons.

The team will take on Virginia Tech on Sunday, before facing a trio of Big Ten schools in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge at St. Petersburg and Clearwater, Fla., next weekend. Indiana (the reigning Big Ten champion), Iowa, Michigan State and Purdue will provide the opposition.

Down the road, tests against East Carolina (which reached the NCAA Super Regionals last year) and Big East foe Louisville (which also advanced just as far as ECU) loom.

The earliest tests were part of a schedule put together by coach Greg Van Zant in the hopes of testing a team that has potential, but must recover from some significant losses from last year's squad that went 37-18 overall.

"It's going to have to help prepare them for Big East play," said Van Zant. "That's one reason we wanted to do it, was so they would have a feel for what we have to do to be able to win in the conference."

Several younger players will have to try to learn quickly, as they attempt to replace some of the best offensive players in school history.

That includes Vince Belnome, the second baseman who broke the school record for RBIs a season ago while batting north of .400 on the year.

"The kid could hit blindfolded," Van Zant said. "He's one of the best hitters in our school's history."

Add the losses of Joe Agreste, Tobias Streich (a fifth-round MLB draft choice by the Minnesota Twins, the highest draft pick from Van Zant's program in 12 years), Justin Parks and Austin Markle -- all of whom were solid performers offensively -- and WVU's primary concern could be how to generate offense.

"Those were five of the best hitters in our school's history, all on one team," Van Zant said.

"It's just unrealistic to think we're going to be able to score 10 runs a game like we did last year. We're going to have to play good defense and be exceptional bunters."

Indeed, so-called "small-ball" might be the best way for West Virginia to put runs on the board, as several of the players on the current roster are speedsters.

The squad's coach, heading into his 16th season at the helm of the Mountaineer program, said moving runners along by successfully laying down bunts and executing hit-and-runs is one of the key characteristics to better college baseball teams.

"We play small-ball -- even last year's team," Van Zant said. "We had a team where we were in the top two or three teams in the country in team batting average, led the country in doubles per game, and we were second in sacrifice bunts."

"We try to not just be a good hitting team. We teach the guys that there's three parts of your offense. One is hitting, one is bat control -- bunting, hit-and-running and small-ball stuff -- and one is base-running. So if you're one dimensional, and all you can do is hit, on the day you face a good pitcher, you're going to struggle to score runs. You can't always get 16 hits off somebody's number one pitcher."

Indeed, as proof that bunting isn't something just for teams that lack power, Van Zant said the only team that beat WVU in that category last season was traditional powerhouse Texas.

"The better teams also can handle the bat -- bunt, foul off two-strike pitches, be able to hit-and-run. Those sorts of things," he said.

But with so many young players coming into the line-up, being able to put the ball down and move runners along is a skill that coaches will have to refine throughout the season, as Van Zant said very few players come to college with the ability to bunt at a high level.

"Most of those guys were also the best hitter on their high school team, so they didn't bunt much," he said. "They hit. When they come here, they have to learn how to bunt."

But while players like outfielder Brady Wilson, catcher Matt Malloy, all-purpose fielder T.J. Kuban and left-fielder Dom Hayes try to learn to play offense at the college level, Van Zant will rely on a stable of returning pitchers to keep the Mountaineers in games.

Headlining those returners is Jarryd Summers, a junior who was one of the Big East's best a season ago. Summers had a 3.06 ERA and ranked in the league's top five in terms of opponents' batting average (.239), strikeouts (99), wins (7) and runs allowed (41).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, West Virginia's career saves leader, Chris Enourato, returns for his senior season. The Bridgeport, W.Va., native had six saves a season ago and struck out 1.25 batters per inning pitched.

All told, nine pitchers return to the roster. That gives Van Zant a bit of reassurance that his team can still compete while young players learn to help the Mountaineers tally runs.

"I don't care what sport it is -- if you have a good defense, you have a chance," he said. "In baseball, pitching's your defense."

"Now, our pitchers are going to struggle. We might come out the first weekend and give up 35 runs. I don't know how it's going to go. But I know we have some good pitchers, and if they stay healthy, in time, they're going to be successful."

But the team's marquee name is still that of Morgantown native Jedd Gyorko.

The junior shortstop is the Big East's preseason choice for Player of the Year. He was an All-American in several publications after batting .421 with eight home runs, 58 RBIs and a school-record 28 doubles last year.

Van Zant knows what his shortstop can do at the plate. But it's the strides Gyorko is likely to make as a defensive player that has the veteran coach excited to see what 2010 holds.

"He played (the position) real well (last year)," said Van Zant. "I think he'll play it better."

"One thing, forever here, it seems like if your first-year shortstop does a pretty good job, and comes back a second year, he almost always plays better. You can go back 20 years, and if you don't move them around a position and let them just play shortstop, they seem to have a better fielding percentage. It's a tough position to play."

While the coach feels that there is plenty of talent in the mix, the combination of inexperience and natural geographic disadvantages could make for a rough start to the season against tough competition.

Indeed, with snow on the ground, WVU has been forced exclusively to practice inside the Caperton Indoor Practice Facility next to Milan Puskar Stadium. But Van Zant said he refuses to let the Morgantown weather defeat his team even before it gets started.

"Everyone's got weather issues," he said. "We don't want to use weather as an excuse, but it obviously makes it tough early on."

"We haven't been on a baseball field yet. But we do everything we can to simulate it. Our players have not put their spikes on yet. With new shoes, you've got to break them in a bit. So it's a challenge, but we can't use it as an excuse."

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