Gene Stephenson crashed.
It was 2003 and he was racing down a mountain on a pair of skis at a Colorado resort. And he went down, rolled head over heels through the snow and eventually crashed into a line of trees. The Wichita State baseball coach suffered a broken leg and extensive knee damage. It took five rescue workers an hour to pry him from where he landed and get him to a hospital.
Three years later, Stephenson returned to Keystone, where the previous fall could have killed him.
Determined to get the last word – and if you know Stephenson, you know he loves getting the last word – he buckled up a pair of skis and tackled the mountain that had nearly finished him.
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“It took me two full days after I got out there to get up the nerve to go and try it,” he said. “But I wanted to do it because I had lost. And I was going to try and win.”
Stephenson made it down the mountain cleanly this time. He conquered a demon.
“And I ain’t never been back,” he said. “That was the last time I skied and it will be the last time I ever ski.”
There’s another mountain in front of Stephenson, and it’s just as dangerous as the one he tumbled down in Colorado.
Three years without an NCAA Tournament for Stephenson’s program have attracted the wolves. They’re howling about a decline in a sport the Shockers used to dominate.
Stephenson is 67. The end of his coaching days is nearer than the beginning. His athletic director, Eric Sexton, has not extended Stephenson’s contract past 2014. The Shockers’ season begins Friday, with the start of a three-game series against Pittsburgh, against a backdrop of more what-if scenarios than a murder mystery.
And Stephenson is coming out fighting.
“The only thing that matters is what we’re going to do (Friday),” Stephenson said. “I’m excited for it, I yearn for it, I love it.”
Stephenson knows how the deck is stacked. He realizes that the overwhelming support he once was able to count on has diminished over the years.
The Shockers aren’t getting to NCAA Tournaments the way they used to. They’re not winning Missouri Valley Conference championships the way they used to, either.
It’s a new season, one loaded with a bunch of early home games that should help WSU get off on the right foot before they leave for Long Beach State and Hawaii in the middle of March.
Stephenson likes this team. He expects it to hit better than the previous three or four Shocker teams and to pitch the way we’ve all become accustomed.
Stephenson won’t talk about his job status. He preaches positivity these days, especially when it comes to his 2013 team.
Last week, Stephenson made a trek to Manhattan to visit with his old friend, Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder.
Choosing not to divulge the specifics of their three-hour conversation, Stephenson would only say: “Just a couple of old dudes talking. He’s older than me, though.”
Snyder, showing no signs of slowing down at 73, guided K-State to a Big 12 championship last season and took the Wildcats to the Fiesta Bowl.
“I obviously respect him and I think he respects me,” Stephenson said. “We talked about football, baseball, philosophy. But I’m not going to divulge any of the details of the things we talked about. It’s private. I’m going to try and be better, no matter what I do. And I thought he was a good guy to talk with.”
It wasn’t the Beatles meeting with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in London in 1967, but Stephenson’s meeting with Snyder could have been meditative.
There’s only one way for Stephenson to calms his critics, though, and that’s by winning. This shapes up as one of the most fascinating seasons in years, but not for all the normal reasons.
There aren’t many well-known names on the Wichita State roster. First baseman and DH Johnny Coy has been around a while now and Casey Gillaspie, who will play some first base and could be in right field occasionally, is one of WSU’s most promising hitters to come along since his brother, Conor, left after the 2008 season.
That was the last season, by the way, that the Shockers made a deep postseason run. They made it all the way to a super regional before losing in a best-of-three series to Florida State in Tallahassee.
So what happens in 2013?
The possibilities are endless. If the Shockers failed to reach the postseason, will Stephenson survive? If they make a nice run in the NCAA Tournament, does Sexton give his coach a contract extension?
How much is left in Stephenson’s tank?
There’s another mountain in Stephenson’s way, one he is determined to conquer.
But can he?