The Missouri Valley Conference's first try at an eight-team baseball tournament exposed its biggest weakness.
Trying to cram four games into a day is asking for trouble from the spring weather. Sure enough, rain hit the tournament hard on Thursday at Eck Stadium.
"It's played havoc," MVC associate commissioner Joe Mitch said. "And, obviously, you can't control it."
Rain or extra-inning games threw the schedule off each of the first three days. Only the 9 a.m. games on Wednesday and Thursday started on time — the other 10 were delayed. Wichita State, the top seed and main draw, didn't start a game before 9 p.m.
The worst weather hit Thursday afternoon, when rain and lightning halted the Missouri State-Evansville game for 2 hours, 53 minutes. The Indiana State-Illinois State game, scheduled to start at 4 p.m., started at 6:50. That pushed the Wichita State-Evansville game, scheduled for 7, deep into the night — too late for today's edition of The Eagle.
Mitch said the MVC wanted to do everything possible to play the four scheduled games on Thursday in order to avoid one team having to play twice today. Two "if necessary" games are scheduled for today. Making WSU or Evansville play twice on Friday when Illinois State or Indiana State would not was not satisfactory.
Weather issues were discussed when the Valley coaches lobbied for this bracket, Mitch said. They realized it might make for long days at the ballpark.
"When the coaches talked about it, they said we have to be prepared to play into the night," Mitch said. "They accepted that."
Eck Stadium's new artificial turf, which handles water well, helped save the day. Pulling the tarp after a rain delay begins a 30-minute wait to prepare the infield. On Thursday, players were able to warm up and resume the game quickly after the ground crew manicured the dirt on the pitcher's mound.
"I told (WSU coach) Gene (Stephenson) he made the right choice," Mitch said. "We would have been way behind."
The delays aren't likely to reduce enthusiasm for the format, which is in the first of a two-season experiment. Most MVC coaches long argued for including more teams in the tournament. This format, which is the MVC's fourth in four seasons, adopts the four-team brackets used by the College World Series.
"I love the setup," Indiana State coach Rick Heller said. "I think it's fair. It gives us a true champion."
The Big East and SEC also use the eight-team, two-bracket format. Duplicating the CWS model is a plus in Heller's mind.
"That's where we want to be," Heller said. "To be ready to play in that format, I would think, is good for us to do."
The rain treated Evansville and Missouri State most unkindly. That did not cloud their view of the format.
"You're going to get a true winner out of each bracket," Evansville coach Wes Carroll said. "It helps the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds definitely, but it also gives everybody a chance."
Creighton coach Ed Servais, one of the biggest critics of the 2008 double-bye format, didn't like drawing the 9 a.m. game three days in a row.
"I think our kids were put at a disadvantage," he said. "I know there's probably no way of getting around it. It's not like you can pull a team that played at night down to play a 9 a.m. game."
Two years ago, the MVC ditched the six-team bracket criticized as unwieldy and unfair to the high seeds. The new 2008 format gave the top two seeds byes in the six-team field. By the time top-seeded Wichita State took the field on the second day, third-seeded Creighton had played three games in 24 hours and Bradley and Northern Iowa were eliminated.
Last season, the MVC adopted a pod system. It produced games where a win or loss didn't matter, and teams held back pitchers. Few liked that scenario.
Other conference are using the pod system. Conference USA adopted the same schedule the MVC used last season. The Big 12 and ACC also use pool play.