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Wichita State losing its most enduring Valley baseball rival

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, May 11, 2013, at 6:49 p.m.

10 snapshots from the rivalry

1. Wichita State’s 3-2 win in the 1991 College World Series reigns as one of college baseball’s great games. The Shockers won in 12 innings in front of a then-record crowd of 18,206 who witnessed a marquee pitching matchup between WSU’s Tyler Green and Creighton’s Alan Benes at Rosenblatt Stadium. WSU won on Scot McCloughan’s two-out single that scored Jim Audley in the top of the 12th. Audley’s most memorable contribution came when, playing center field, he threw out Steve Bruns at the plate in the bottom of the inning to preserve the one-run lead. “I knew it was going to take a perfect throw,” Creighton coach Jim Hendry said. “And that’s what Jim Audley threw.”

2. No. 12 WSU and No. 25 Creighton teamed for an epic day in the final round of the 2007 MVC Tournament in Springfield, Mo. The Shockers won the early game 2-1 with pitcher Aaron Shafer returning from injury to throw five shutout innings. In the second championship game, Creighton blew a five-run lead before winning 10-9 in 12 innings for its first tournament title. Down 6-1, WSU tied it in the ninth and took a 9-6 lead in the 11th. The Bluejays tied it in the bottom of the inning and won with a run in the 12th.

3. WSU ended Creighton’s stay in the 1991 College World Series with an 11-3 victory, two days after the 12-inning classic. Pitcher Kennie Steenstra improved to 17-0 and the Shockers went 8-0 against the Bluejays in 1991.

4. Creighton upset WSU 4-3 in 12 innings to force a second championship game in the 1992 MVC Tournament. WSU freshman pitcher Mike Brandley shut out the Bluejays 5-0, holding them to four hits, to win the title at Eck Stadium.

5. In 1991, a crowd of 7,212 at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium watched the Shockers score 11 runs in the first inning of the MVC Tournament title game. WSU won 13-1. ’’They’re the No. 1 team in the conference and maybe the No. 1 team in the country,” Hendry said. “I think we belong in the top 20 in the country and that we’re the No. 2 team in the Missouri Valley. ’Heck, we’d like to play them again in June in Omaha."

6. Creighton won its second MVC Tournament with a 3-1 victory at TD Ameritrade Park in 2011. Five pitchers held the Shockers to four hits in front of a crowd of 6,939 in the new home of the College World Series.

7. The Shockers trailed Creighton 11-2 in the fourth inning of a 1998 game at the CU Sports Complex. The Shockers started bashing and won 13-12. Pat Magness homered twice. Casey Davis homered. Jeff Ryan’s homer in the seventh tied it at 12-all. Joey Blue’s single scored Davis with the go-ahead run in the eighth. "I’m going to be tired in three or four hours from all this adrenalin," Magness said. "Once we get back to the hotel, I’m probably going to go to bed."

8. The teams played two crazy games to define the 2009 MVC Tournament at Eck Stadium. Creighton freshman Brandon Koenigstein no-hit the Shockers in an 11-0 seven-inning, run-rule victory. Because of the tournament format, the outcome didn’t matter to either team’s chance of advancing and they saved pitching. Two days later, they met in the title game and WSU won 4-2. Creighton stranded 17 runners and left the bases loaded four times.

9. The Shockers clinched the 1990 MVC title with three wins at Creighton. The weekend turned on WSU’s 7-1 win over the Bluejays and ace Dan Smith in 11 innings. Creighton appeared to win the game in the bottom of the ninth on Rick Freehling’s RBI double. However, it bounced over the fence and the ground-rule double brought the runner back to third. A strikeout ended the threat and WSU scored six runs in the 11th.

10. Imagine the uproar if this decision went against the Shockers. In 1988, rain delayed the MVC Tournament championship round between unbeaten WSU and once-beaten Creighton. The teams played to a 3-all tie in the ninth inning before rain stopped the action for part of two days. With the selection looming, NCAA officials told the MVC that one school would make the field, regardless of the outcome. Interim commissioner Joe Mitch declared WSU the champion and the NCAA representative.

Creighton-Wichita State is the baseball rivalry that produced perhaps the greatest College World Series game and the worst Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship.

That’s just the start: A no-hitter that didn’t “count.” A ridiculous bounce that helped decide an MVC title. Playing in snow at Rosenblatt Stadium. Christening TD Ameritrade Park with its first tournament.

The teams met 160 times before Sunday’s final game of a weekend series. It is the last time they will meet as Missouri Valley Conference opponents. While both coaches like the idea of continuing as non-conference opponents, it won’t be the same with less on the line.

“That was always the game you waited for,” former Shocker infielder Billy Hall said. “The biggest thing that made that series was that it was players and coaches who were really, really good friends. After the game, it was like buddies who grew up together. When they said ‘Play ball,’ it was play ball.”

The rivalry grew up in the late 1980s when Creighton improved. It hit a high in the 1991 College World Series. Throughout, WSU stayed at the top of the MVC and Creighton often came along. The teams met in the conference tournament title games in 2007, 2009 and 2011. This weekend’s series started with the Shockers in first place trying to clinch a championship.

“It seems like we always play them late in the season, and it’s always a huge conference weekend,” WSU senior pitcher T.J. McGreevy said.

Credit former Bluejays coach Jim Hendry with creating the rivalry. He took over during the 1984 season and guided Creighton to its first 40-win season in 1988 and an NCAA regional in 1990, its first since 1973.

“It was never a rivalry until Jim Hendry started coaching there,” WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. “He had great respect for us and he wanted to build his program to emulate us, which he did and he had great success.”

The friendship between Hendry — who later became general manager of the Chicago Cubs — and WSU coaches created a different feeling from games with Oklahoma State, another of WSU’s biggest rivals. Games with OSU produced genuine dislike and hard feelings, in part because of recruiting battles over Oklahoma players. The rivalry with Creighton felt much different.

“100-percent different,” said former WSU pitcher Jaime Bluma.

Friendships from summer leagues often carried over. Bluma said he still talks to former Bluejays such as Alan Benes and Kimera Bartee.

“Between the players, it wasn’t heated,” former Creighton pitcher Mike Heathcott said. “You definitely got up for it because they were the best around. They were what we were trying to become.”

WSU and Creighton, regardless of good feelings off the field, usually teamed up for intense drama at the ballpark. They met twice in the 1991 College World Series. They met eight times in the championship round of the MVC Tournament. Nine times since 1988 did they finish first and second atop the MVC.

Most times, the Shockers prevailed no matter the venue. Entering this weekend they led the series 112-47-1.

Eight of those wins stand out as particularly important. In 1991, WSU went 8-0 against the Bluejays, sweeping past a team that finished sixth in the Baseball America poll and produced six draft choices. The Shockers won four games in the regular season, two in the MVC Tournament and two in the College World Series.

“In four years, we beat them once,” Heathcott said. “I’m just glad I did that.”

Bluma still wonders why the NCAA put the Shockers and Bluejays in the same bracket. Creighton beat Clemson and Long Beach State in the College World Series. It won 51 games and still holds school records for runs, hits, doubles, trips and home runs. First baseman Scott Stahoviak earned a national player of the year award and played in the major leagues along with Bartee, Heathcott, Benes, Dax Jones and Chad McConnell.

WSU outscored Creighton 84-20 in those eight games.

“That was offense vs. defense,” Hall said. And our pitching shut them down. Everything went our way that year. They would always make one or two errors and the floodgates would open.”

The rivalry peaked when Creighton won the West I Regional in Los Angeles to send Omaha into a frenzy to support the hometown team in the College World Series for the first time. WSU joined them after winning the Midwest Regional at Eck Stadium. Creighton disposed of Clemson and the Shockers handled Long Beach State to set up another meeting.

WSU won 3-2 in 12 innings in a game still described as one of the best. Hall remembers Rosenblatt Stadium shaking from the ovation for the Bluejays. Then the teams played a classic.

“They still show the highlights from that game,” Heathcott said. “I’m proud I was part of a game that they still show.”

The game turned on a slider that Bluma threw to Jones with WSU up 3-2 in the bottom of the 12th. He hit the pitch into center field and it appeared pinch-runner Steve Bruns would tie the game. Center fielder Jim Audley, however, gave catcher Doug Mirabelli a perfect throw and Mirabelli applied the tag to Bruns. Bluma then got a groundball to end the game.

“So much fun,” Bluma said. “I hung a slider to Dax Jones. Then I go back up home plate and hope Audley becomes a hero.”

Creighton, especially since current coach Ed Servais took over in 2004, produced its own highlights. They Bluejays won their first MVC title in 2005, finishing one game ahead of WSU. They won their first tournament in 2007, beating WSU in the championship game. In 2011, they celebrated the opening of TD Ameritrade Park by beating WSU in the tournament title game. In between, two average teams flailed around in the 2009 tournament in a title game remembered for a combined 26 runners stranded in WSU’s 4-2 win and a pool-play format quickly changed.

In 2003, Creighton won three of four games at Eck Stadium, including a 16-0 win in the finale. In 2004, WSU dominated the MVC with a 28-4 record. It lost three of those games at Creighton.

“I always felt like Creighton was the one team we were playing that wasn’t intimidated by Wichita State,” former Shocker catcher Brandon Hall said. “I never felt like the aura of Wichita State meant anything to them.”

Servais’ teams play great defense and pride themselves on opportunistic offense that prizes the bunt and unselfish hitting. The contrast with WSU’s style — Stephenson hates to bunt — adds to the rivalry.

“They make all the plays routinely,” Stephenson said. “Ed prepares them meticulously and they don’t beat themselves.”

Like Hendry, Servais targeted WSU when he took over the program..

“Wichita State was clearly the class of the MVC,” he said. “We made it a point to close the gap on them a little bit.”

The teams, despite the genuine talk of friendship and respect, do irritate each other at times.

Creighton’s pesky style of play, its constant dugout chatter and its devotion to bunting and sticking body parts in front of pitches, bugs WSU. WSU, just by being the Shockers and playing for Stephenson, raises emotions. In 2009, the final game of a WSU sweep ended without the customary handshakes. Players and coaches exchanged words and umpires chased them back to the dugouts after Creighton took offense to Tyler Grimes stealing third with a 10-1 lead in the seventh inning. Grimes, who said he was merely trying to get the 10-run edge needed for a run-rule win, scored. Servais called it bad baseball and umpires made WSU freshmen wait before working on the field to let the emotions cool.

Creighton is leaving the MVC for the Big East this summer. Servais would like to play WSU in the future. Stephenson agrees, although finding dates could be a challenge and both coaches are wary about adding more travel to their schedules. The five-hour distance between the schools is a burden for a mid-week game. Stephenson might propose playing a two-game series in one city one season and returning the next season. Weekend dates might be an option.

Mid-week stakes won’t compare to the past 160 meetings and won’t produce the vivid memories and emotions. Servais will always remember winning the 2011 tournament in Omaha, in part because of Stephenson’s grace in defeat. Servais appreciated Stephenson waiting through Creighton’s celebration to congratulate the Bluejays.

“He garnered as much respect as I can have for another coach,” Servais said. “It’s a great rivalry and it’s one built on intensity and respect.”

Check Paul Suellentrop’s Shocker blog at blogs.kansas.com/shockwaves. Reach him at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com.

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