Stephenson finds reasons for optimism in uneven Wichita State baseball season

The WSU coach ponders changes after an uneven season.

06/01/2012 5:00 AM

06/03/2012 8:40 AM

Wichita State baseball coach Gene Stephenson looks at a long list of statistics and wonders how his team went 35-25 against a strong schedule.

The Shockers struck out too much. They rarely walked and didn’t use their speed to steal efficiently. He claims they executed a hit-and-run once in 60 games. For the first time in 35 seasons, no pitcher threw a complete game and the staff struck out 381 batters, fewest since 1984.

“Having said all that, you would think we had a losing season,” Stephenson said. “We were very, very close to being a good team. But we couldn’t sustain it. You can blame coaches. You can blame players. You can blame it on youth. But the bottom line is, we were still pretty darn good, and we will be better next year.”

Stephenson bases his optimism on the fact four freshmen and four sophomores started a significant number of games and three of the four starting pitchers will return. Playing in a senior-dominated conference that generated two NCAA regional at-large teams, WSU battled its way into a chance to finish second entering the final weekend.

Whether or not fans share his optimism is uncertain. Competing near the top of the Missouri Valley Conference, even in a year it ranks fifth (warrennolan.com) among 31 conferences, isn’t the level they became attached to while Stephenson built the program.

The Shockers didn’t play in an NCAA regional for a third straight season and finished third in the Valley, standards far below the ones set by everyone who roots for, plays for or works for the program. Average attendance dropped for a fourth straight season at Eck Stadium, down to 3,013 from 4,187 in 2008. Stephenson, 66, says he doesn’t pay attention to the voices — fans or media — who call for him make changes in his coaching staff. His contract runs through 2014 and when questioned about the direction of the program he maintains a belief WSU baseball can rise again.

He also recognizes the Shockers must improve, dramatically, in some areas and changes need to happen for them to reclaim dominance in the MVC and return to some level of national prominence. Most significantly, he is considering getting more aggressive with his roster, whether that means over-signing recruits to handle draft departures, as is common at many baseball powers, or cutting players who don’t contribute.

“To compete with everybody, we’re probably going to have to do some of that,” he said. “I’ve always resisted that, and we’ve always survived it. We do our best to stay with guys, no matter what. But sometimes you can no longer do it, either from lack of production, or lack of performance off the field.”

He wants to find ways to sell his staff’s message and instructions to players, especially when it comes to hitting. He is tired of watching pitchers overpower his batters, so he wants to change how his players lift weights. He wants those changes to help an offense that routinely takes the heat for many of WSU’s struggles. It last led the MVC in batting average in 2008.

“I don’t think I can force guys to do what I want,” he said. “They have to buy into what I’m talking about it. We’re going to have to do a better job of getting our players to buy in to what our system is, doing a better job of getting on base, and do a better job of being confident in our system.”

WSU’s batting average of .277 ranked No. 139 nationally and its slugging percentage of .385 ranked No. 124 (out of 291 NCAA Division I teams). It is possible to win that way — regional host Miami slugged .389, regional host South Carolina batted .271 and regional host Texas A&M hit eight fewer home runs than WSU. While the Shockers played excellent defense, pitching didn’t do enough to help the offense.

“We need to be more confident,” Stephenson said. “We need to be stronger, physically. With certain hitters, their approach at the plate needs to be changed, and better, and it will be.”

Those offensive numbers are also on the minds of the players. It was a tough season to be a young hitter in the MVC, which featured national ERA leader Missouri State and several aces expected to go in the top 10 rounds of the professional draft. The Shockers hit .254 in 21 conference games. Their 58 walks ranked in a three-way tie at the bottom of the MVC and only one team struck out more than WSU’s 146.

“Working on being more consistent is the biggest thing,” second baseman Dayne Parker said. “Our hitting was in and out, and that’s what we need to work on.”

WSU damaged its regional resume with a 15-13 start to the season. Even after it finished by winning seven of 10 games, an RPI ranked No. 43 and a strength of schedule ranked No. 35 failed to impress the NCAA selection committee.

The Shockers did not get many lucky bounces on their way to 35 wins. Sophomore Zach Beringer, projected to be a member of the rotation, wrecked his car in the fall and did not pitch due to serious injuries to his back and knee. An ankle injury kept outfielder Garrett Bayliff, who has hit .324 in parts of three seasons, on the sidelines for most of a second consecutive season. Stephenson had to remake his infield in March after he kicked second baseman Walker Davidson off the team and again in April when second baseman Tyler Coughenour was suspended for a violation of team rules.

WSU’s weekend rotation, normally the Valley’s strongest, did not get settled until late April, when freshman Kris Gardner grabbed a spot. Soon after, freshman A.J. Ladwig returned to the rotation with more success. Senior Mitch Mormann, projected to be at least a No. 2 starter, struggled with control problems and ended the season in the bullpen.

Stephenson used a different lineup in 50 games, trying to take advantage of hot hitters and pitching matchups. In a must-win game against Missouri State in the MVC Tournament — WSU’s final game — he put freshman Mikel Mucha in the leadoff spot for the first time. Mucha was one of four freshmen in the batting order that day, and three sophomores joined them. By season’s end, right fielder Don Lambert was the only senior who started regularly.

“There are some young guys here that can play,” Lambert said. “If they continue to develop, they’re going to have a bright future.”

The Shockers may start next season as the MVC favorite, depending on how the draft hits rosters around the conference. That would be a first step toward regaining success fans desperately miss.

“I never enjoy not winning league championships, not going to the NCAA Tournament, not playing for an opportunity to go to the College World Series,” Stephenson said. “Our goals have not changed. I’m optimistic that we can do some things and return to where we need to be.”

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