Wichita State losing its most enduring Valley baseball rival

05/11/2013 6:49 PM

05/11/2013 6:49 PM

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.”

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