Some new coaches feel an overpowering need to to put their stamp on a program immediately, even if means pushing players out the door.
Wichita State baseball coach Todd Butler took a patient approach. Almost everyone from the 2013 season is back, giving Butler a roster with 20 juniors and seniors. The group that started together will finish together, clearing room for Butler to bring in a large group of recruits — 17 are already signed for next fall. The Shockers return 23 players from last season and bring in 13 newcomers, most signed before Butler’s arrival in June.
Butler’s willingness to stick with players he didn’t recruit started the relationship in a good way.
“He was honest with everybody, open with everybody,” senior pitcher Foster Vielock said at Friday’s media day. “That’s how you earn respect really quickly, and that’s why he has everybody’s respect.”
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The Shockers, 39-28 last season, are picked first in the Missouri Valley Conference after finishing second last season and winning the MVC Tournament to make their first NCAA regional since 2009. After the season, WSU fired coach Gene Stephenson and hired Butler from Arkansas, where he worked eight years as an assistant.
“We really didn’t know what to expect,” senior pitcher Cale Elam said. “We had had so much comfort and ease of mind knowing exactly what to expect for so many years. It speaks volumes on his end, as far as having confidence in (pitching coach Brent Kemnitz) knowing the personnel coming back and trust in us, that we’re good enough to play for him.”
Butler leaned on Kemnitz, the lone holdover from Stephenson’s staff, when he evaluated the roster.
“I knew we had a chance to have a good club coming back, because of the season they had last year,” Butler said. “I didn’t really want to come in here and change a lot. This has been a fantastic program for decades. I wanted to stay simple and stay the course.”
Butler is betting on experience carrying the Shockers to an improved season. They finished second in the MVC last season, third in 2012 and second in 2011. WSU last won an undisputed MVC title in 2008. It hasn’t earned an at-large spot in an NCAA regional since 2007.
Eight starters are back from last season, including the team’s top seven hitters, as well as the top four starting pitchers.
“It’s real comforting knowing you’re with a tight group of guys,” senior shortstop Dayne Parker said.
Third baseman Chase Simpson, who redshirted last season after transferring from Oklahoma, is expected to hit in the middle of the lineup. First baseman Casey Gillaspie, catcher Tyler Baker, outfielder Garrett Bayliff and reliever Aaron LaBrie earned spots on the preseason All-MVC team.
“I walked into a very good situation,” Butler said. “They’re very hungry to be coached. They have an understanding of what it takes.”
While much about the program is similar, there are changes. Players and coaches wear matching practice gear, a change from the mix of T-shirts and shorts allowed during Stephenson’s 36-year reign. Butler will coach from the dugout with assistant coach Brian Walker at third base during games. Butler is excited about speakers soon to be installed throughout Eck Stadium.
Practices, players say, move along quickly.
“It’s a lot more up-tempo,” Parker said. “We try not to be standing around at all. We get stuff done, and then we get out of here.”
The Shockers open the season with a three-game series against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville beginning Feb. 14 at Eck Stadium.
Waiting on a verdict — Butler declined to comment on the specifics of the NCAA’s investigation of improper clothing and apparel benefits provided to players. NCAA investigators visited campus recently.
WSU expects as many as 11 players, most from the pitching staff, to serve suspensions and/or repay purchases made through an Under Armour account. Athletes are not allowed to purchase non-baseball items at a discount. Suspensions could range from six to 18 games, depending on the amount of gear purchased.
According to NCAA rules, athletes who receive an improper benefit of $100-$400 could miss 10 percent of their season. The penalty grows to 20 percent for $400-$700 and 30 percent for more than $700. The NCAA baseball season is 56 games.
While WSU wants to get the penalties decided before the season, there is no guarantee the NCAA will rule in a timely manner. With the issue hanging over the team, it is difficult for coaches to know what kind of lineup they will use early in the season.
“It’s taken a toll,” Butler said. “There’s challenges every year, whether it’s injuries or setbacks or what-not. We just need to high-step this. There’s no excuses. We’ll have to really plan it out, trying to get the pitchers their pitch counts up and things like that. Trying to figure out who will be where.”
Music man — Butler said the speakers will be installed by the end of February on light standards, the grandstand and the concourse.
“I can’t wait to crank some music,” he said. “We want to play some nice music that you can understand and hear. I think it’s going to be more fan-friendly and I think it’s going to be great for our players.”
Butler likes 70s and 80s music and lists the Doobie Brothers and Eddie Money as his favorites.
“That’s what we listen to in practice, classic rock,” he said. “I ask the players if they can name the group and I’m shocked by some of the players’ answers. Some of them get it.”
Throwing hard — Parker did not throw during fall practices while he recovered from a labral tear in his right shoulder. He opted against surgery, deciding to rehab the injury so he could play this spring.
The shoulder bothered Parker last spring, but he thought time off in the summer would help. He played in Alaska for a month before the pain bothered him and he shut down his summer. Before Christmas, he started a throwing program, gradually upping his velocity.
“I came out (Thursday) for the first time and threw 100 percent,” he said. “It felt good. I took a couple ground balls and then started hosing out from shortstop just to see how it felt. It felt great.”