The goal for Wichita State baseball pitchers is to be ready, but not too ready.
Seniors Cale Elam and Foster Vielock understand that fine line as they prepare for the start of practice on Jan. 24. Vielock, a reliever, learned the hard way. As a sophomore, he kept throwing after fall practices through Christmas break and into spring practice.
“I didn’t stop,” he said. “I was overzealous. The last couple games I was pretty bad.”
It still isn’t easy for Vielock to cut back, which is why Elam is the perfect workout partner for playing catch.
“He’s like my baby-sitter,” Vielock said. “He’s pretty good about keeping calm.”
“Keep calm and pitch on” could be WSU coach Todd Butler’s slogan for December and January. His top priority is getting his pitchers prepared for the Feb. 14 opening series, while not burning them out for the long haul.
“It’s a short window,” he said. “You just don’t want to push them too fast. We’ll begin the season with them on a pitch count, protecting them, and build them up from there.”
WSU pitching coach Brent Kemnitz broke his staff into small groups, with senior Aaron LaBrie taking the lefties and Elam and Vielock splitting up the right-handers. Before the fall semester ended, the groups met and the seniors explained the need to start throwing around Christmas at a modest pace. For those, like Elam, who stayed in Wichita, it’s easy to find teammates to play catch. Vielock rounded up friends in Kansas City at an indoor facility.
This week, Elam said, he might start throwing in the bullpen. Running is also part of the routine.
“You don’t want to come back 100-percent ready and throwing breaking balls whenever you have a month before the season starts,” he said. “Then you come up in May, when we need you the most, and your arm is tired and dead.”
Elam, a starter, wants to start practice with an arm strong enough to throw regularly and comfortable with his breaking pitches. His change-up is the pitch that takes the longest to recover after the break.
“Brent’s going to get us ready with those two or three weeks before the season starts,” he said. “I want to be pretty close as far as having my feel for all my pitches and have been playing catch, so it’s not one of those things where I throw one day and the next day I can’t even pick up a ball.”
“There weren’t many changes from the past,” he said. “It’s still the same game of baseball. The players were very receptive, with a lot of energy and a lot of tempo.”
Figuring out the middle infield is Butler’s challenge. He said senior shortstop Dayne Parker is recovered from a shoulder injury that kept him from throwing in the fall. Senior Erik Harbutz, sophomore Tanner Kirk and freshman Wes Phillips also can play shortstop. Newcomer Zair Koeiman and junior Cody Bobbit played second base in the fall.
“The middle infield, knowing who’s going to play every day — someone needs to take that,” Butler said.
Butler’s first practices will look much like the fall with an emphasis on defense, bunting, hit and run and two-strike hitting. Beginning Wednesday, players will work with coaches in small groups for two hours a week.
“We’re going to go right back to the practices we started with (in the fall),” he said. “Pop-ups and rundowns. We’ll stay simple and be prepared for Feb. 14.”
“When I was growing up, baseball was always No. 1,” he said. “When I hit high school, football kind of took over.”
Lungwitz, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound right-hander, said he is receiving letters from Missouri for football. He will attend showcase camps soon and expects to get a better idea of his future.
“Then we’ll see what my options are as far as football,” he said. “If I play baseball, I want to play at Wichita State.”
Lungwitz threw for 1,975 yards with 28 touchdowns and five interceptions as a junior. He earned All-Metro honors and honorable mention All-Class 6A. He pitches for Maize and plays summer baseball.
Lungwitz threw for WSU coaches over Christmas break and they quickly offered him a scholarship.
“Not a lot of schools have a guy like that,” Croft said. “He can get me where I want to go.”
Croft said he canceled a visit to Texas Tech after committing to WSU. Family connections helped make the decision. Mark Croft, his father, grew up in Wichita and his parents live here.
Good grades are nothing new for the team and coach Chris Lamb credits the players for monitoring each other. He and his coaches don’t need to push the importance of school and they benefit by recruiting a pool of players already, in large part, academically prepared.
"They feel their own pressure," he said. "This is important to them. I’m not sitting next to them in every class making sure they’re paying attention. It’s their deal and they’ve decided they are holding each other accountable and have for years."
Lamb creates a good atmosphere by allowing his players to major in their choice. He schedules practices around classes and labs. This spring, the Shockers will practice from 6-9 a.m. so senior middle Hannah Eakin can practice for two hours before leaving to do her student teaching. Last season, players such as Chelsey Feekin and Elizabeth Field routinely left practice early for class.
"We’ve let them be in the driver’s seat and that’s a big compromise as a coach," Lamb said. "Not every team you see has players missing practices on a regular basis so they can do what they want academically."