The facade on the Eck Stadium press box memorializes the success of past Wichita State baseball players, year by year listing the legacy. For the current Shockers, the empty spaces document the recent slide.
No current Shocker has played in an NCAA regional. Five remain from the 2010 Missouri Valley Conference champions. This season is about adding 2013 in yellow numbers to that facade.
“A lot of guys are embarrassed that we haven’t made a regional,” WSU pitcher Cale Elam said. “We do come out here and look at the numbers and see that it stops at ’09, that we haven’t been the last three years. That was the reason I came here, because of the legacy. That’s the norm around here, and when you don’t do that, I can see why people are mad.”
The three-season NCAA drought is the longest for coach Gene Stephenson since he revived the program in 1978. The Shockers came close in 2010, when they won the MVC and lost in the tournament title game. Last season’s team went 35-25 against a top-50 schedule and compiled a power ranking of 45, which wasn’t enough to tempt the NCAA selection committee.
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WSU starts this season with 18 of its first 19 games at home, one of them an opponent coming off an NCAA regional appearance. Given that cushy start, Stephenson believes his team is talented enough to take advantage and pile up wins.
“No one is more aware of the fact we’ve missed the NCAA Tournament three years running,” he said. “Being a northern school, we’re going to have to win the league or we’re going to have to win the tournament. And we’re going to have to win an awful lot of games.”
He also says this team is determined and hardened by a tougher off-season program that will produce a stronger team, mentally and physically.
“We made some changes in the weight program that I think are going to be beneficial,” he said. “One thing I’ve noticed, over the past several years, at the end of the season is that we looked physically tired, physically slower. We needed to have more self-discipline about the weights.… to maintain a strength level. I’m convinced there are a lot of players who are physically stronger.”
WSU is picked second in the MVC, behind Missouri State, largely on the potential for improvement. The Shockers return five of their top seven hitters, two weekend starters and all of its key relievers.
Suiting up again won’t be enough. The returners need to play better, much better in some cases.
WSU’s talent didn’t overwhelm the MVC last season. Only first baseman Johnny Coy (first team) and Elam (second team) earned All-MVC honors. Coy is the lone Shocker on the All-MVC preseason team.
The freshmen and sophomores forced to play, many before they were ready, the past two seasons are more experienced. WSU’s improvement must start with players such as junior second baseman Dayne Parker, sophomore catcher Tyler Baker and sophomore first baseman Casey Gillaspie.
The roster is short on seniors — traditionally a sign of a strong team — with Coy and pitcher T.J. McGreevy. There are, however, 15 juniors, five of whom are in their fourth season.
“A lot of people got more confidence,” junior third baseman Erik Harbutz said. “They’ve had a lot of at-bats this past year. It doesn’t seem like we’re relying on one or two guys. It seems like throughout the whole lineup there are guys who can produce.”
WSU’s offensive potential starts with Coy and Gillaspie, power hitters who should provide plenty of pop in the middle of the lineup. Coy hit .344 with nine home runs and 17 doubles. Gillaspie hit .274 with eight home runs. The Shockers can surround them with several experienced hitters, few of whom consistently reached base last season. WSU ranked fifth in the MVC in batting average at .277. It struck out 407 times, third-most in the conference, and walked a mere 230 times. Its 31 home runs ranked ahead of only Creighton and Evansville.
“I don’t think there’s any shortage of talent,” Stephenson said. “If we do our job offensively, there’s going to be a lot of guys get on base this year, a lot more than last year.”
Coy also sees positive signs in practice. The return of outfielder Garrett Bayliff, healthy after missing most of the past two seasons, should help the offense. Newcomer Cody Bobbit is expected to add speed and a left-handed bat at shortstop.
“I think everybody has matured a lot,” Coy said. “I could name anybody, really, up and down the lineup. Casey’s been a lot more patient in the lineup. He’s willing to take the walks. If the guy behind me is hitting well and taking the right pitches, that’s going to help me out a lot.”
Elam said he hears fans accuse players of not caring about the NCAA absence. To the contrary, he said, it bothers them more than anyone. They are ones who live with the burden each day in practice when they see the murals in Eck Stadium and the pictures in their team room that celebrate the past.
As recently as 2007 and 2008, Shocker teams contributed to that legacy. That is the program most of these players signed with.
“I feel like we had a silent resolve to change the way we go about things,” Elam said. “I feel like with everybody, that’s their main mission. We do need to put another number up on this building.”