West Virginia Mountaineers Keep Reaching New Heights

MORGANTOWN, WVa.—Before Friday night, no player on West Virginia's roster had ever been on the winning side of a game against Texas Christian.

Ever.

Senior first baseman Jackson Cramer reminded head coach Randy Mazey of that fact just before Friday's game, telling Mazey that his class was 0-11 against the Horned Frogs over the previous three years. When Mazey heard that, he couldn't quite believe it.

As far as Mazey was concerned, the Mountaineers were heading into Friday's opener against No. 3 TCU with all of the momentum. The Mountaineers, he thought, had the edge.

Shortly before Friday's 5-4 win, Mazey explained why. The head coach asked his Mountaineers to think back to the way last season ended, in the Big 12 tournament championship game against—you guessed it—TCU.

The Mountaineers lost that game 11-10, in 10 innings, but the end result wasn't what Mazey was focused on. He asked his players to think back to the last seven innings of that game, the way they fought. Trailing 8-0 in the third, the Mountaineers outscored TCU, 10-3, over the remainder of that contest.

"So I felt like we had momentum going into this game," Mazey said Friday, "because we felt really good about how we finished the last time we played them."

Apparently, that momentum indeed carried over—and this time, the Mountaineers finished the job.

West Virginia snapped its 0-11 skid against TCU and did so in electrifying fashion, walking off in front of the fourth-largest crowd (2,914) in program history. Just like their last meeting in last year's Big 12 tournament, the series opener was a thrilling, topsy-turvy affair, with the Horned Frogs scoring three runs in the ninth inning to tie the score at 4-4.

But the Mountaineers weren't going to be denied; sophomore catcher Ivan Gonzalez was going to make sure of that. He blamed himself for West Virginia’s ninth-inning predicament Friday. Though officially ruled a wild pitch, Gonzalez believed he should've caught the Braden Zarbnisky pitch that skirted away and allowed TCU's game-tying run to come across.

"After I missed that blocked ball, my head just went straight down," Gonzalez said. "I was sad, but in the dugout everyone was coming up to me saying, 'Your shot's coming. Your shot's coming up this inning. Keep your head up.'"

His shot came quickly.

With runners on first and third and one out in the bottom of the ninth, Gonzalez stepped to the plate and saw three straight balls from TCU righthander Sean Wymer. With a 3-0 count, the sophomore assumed he'd see the 'take' sign from Mazey at third base.

"But I turn around and he says, 'Hey, here comes the fastball,'" Gonzalez said. "And sure enough, I get a fastball. And I got just enough barrel to get it out of there."

Game-winning sacrifice fly. Shortstop Jimmy Galusky, who opened the inning with a double, raced home, then joined the rest of his exultant teammates in a raucous mob in front of the first-base dugout.

With the win, West Virginia snapped TCU's 13-game winning streak. But more than that, the Mountaineers made a statement of defiance.

"Ever since last year, in the Big 12 championship, we knew we could hang with (the Frogs)," Gonzalez said. "And when they came to our home, we were like, 'Hey, we're going to let them know who the Mountaineers are.'

And just who are the Mountaineers?

The Mountaineers are 20-12 and 7-3 in the Big 12—just one game back of the first-place Horned Frogs. After Friday's win, they rank 10th in the country in RPI. If they continue at this pace, they'll earn their first NCAA regional bid since 1996.

But more than those metrics, the Mountaineers are confident. There's a sense of disgruntled, chip-on-their-shoulder swagger on Mazey's squad. Junior righthander B.J. Myers, who worked 8.1 stellar innings against a potent lineup Friday night, wore his emotions on the mound, unafraid to celebrate after any of his six strikeouts, at one point skipping off the mound with glee.

"If you watch me on the mound, I'm a little cocky," Myers said after the game. "I have all the confidence in the world in myself that I can get it done. Mazey's drilled it into my head that confidence wins.”

Mazey, in his fifth season with the Mountaineers, has built that kind of culture in Morgantown. West Virginia has steadily improved each year with Mazey at the helm, narrowly missing postseason play with a 36-22 mark last season.

There have been hurdles. The Mountaineers had to adjust to a new conference and a more rigorous travel schedule after leaving the Big East for the Big 12 in 2013. Before Monongalia County Ballpark opened in 2015, the Mountaineers had to play their home games about two hours away in Charleston, WVa.

"We came in here four, five years ago and joined the Big 12 and didn't really know what to expect; at least, the people around here didn't. I did. I've been in the Big 12. I've coached at places similar," said Mazey, who was an assistant at TCU before taking the West Virginia job. "So we just came in and said, 'Hey, we have nothing to lose here for a while. Let's just go out and play as hard as we can, and over time, get some recruiting classes in here, get the facility finished.' And now it's starting to show up.

"It takes a while after you build a facility for the results to show up. Usually it takes three or four years, so we just tried to be as patient as we could, but we wanted to let everybody know that the Mountaineers aren't a team you can just steamroll. We're going to play as hard as we can and win some games, and I think we've proven it over the last few years."

It probably isn't fair to say West Virginia has arrived quite yet—it hasn't even finished its series with TCU yet. Mazey said the most important focus for his club going forward is avoiding complacency. After all, the Mountaineers still have series against Top 25 opponents Texas Tech and Oklahoma left on the docket.

But certainly, Friday night was an indication of what the West Virginia program could be, as the Mountaineers walked off in front of a record crowd, against one of the country's best teams.

"This crowd and this atmosphere is what it's going to take to propel the program to the next level," Mazey said while sitting in the home dugout, watching fans disperse following a post-game fireworks show.

"We haven't played in a regional in 21 years, and for this many people to come out and see the type of baseball we play—I don't know any reason why everybody who was here tonight wouldn't come back tomorrow."

Comments