Coming off its third straight losing season, the first streak of its kind since the program was rebooted in 1978, the Wichita State baseball team has made its expectations clear.
The Shockers expect to win.
WSU returns nine starters, an upperclassmen-dominant team, and two projected early-round draft picks in outfielder Greyson Jenista and third baseman Alec Bohm.
Wichita State will open its season on Friday in Lake Charles, La., with a three-game series against McNeese State. The Shockers’ home-opener is Feb. 23 against Omaha.
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“It’s time for us to win,” Bohm said. “You ask every guy in that locker room and they want to get back to Omaha (for the College World Series). We want to bring back the winning culture and we want to be the group that does it.”
WSU has averaged 25 wins the last three seasons with a .429 winning percentage. WSU appeared in a regional in 2013, though that appearance was later vacated as punishment for a violation of NCAA rules for impermissable benefits. So officially WSU hasn’t been to postseason play since 2009.
Ending that streak became more difficult with WSU’s move to the American Athletic Conference, which finished as the fourth-strongest conference in RPI last season. For comparison, the Missouri Valley was No. 16.
Houston, Central Florida and South Florida all won at least 40 games last season, while Connecticut received three first-place votes in the preseason conference poll. WSU was picked sixth in the nine-team league.
“We’re kind of like the team that no one knows,” WSU coach Todd Butler said. “We’re picked sixth, which is where I would have thought being the new team in the conference.”
Butler said the team is looking forward to new travel with road trips to East Carolina, Houston, Central Florida and Memphis. Instead of the 10-hour bus trips they took in the Valley, WSU will more often hop on a commercial plane and fly to bigger cities with warmer weather.
The trade-off is a major step up in competition.
“The expectation is set: we need to win games, new conference or not,” Jenista said.
Bohm (.305 average, 11 home runs last season) and Jenista (.320, nine home runs) are the two biggest bats returning to WSU’s lineup. Both are preseason All Americans and have been named to almost every watch list in the country.
Last summer, both excelled in the Cape Cod League, where Jenista was chosen MVP and Bohm hit .350. They are both targeted as high picks in June’s draft.
“You try not to read it as much as you probably do, but at the end of the day we’re a part of the Wichita State baseball team and they’re our focus,” said Jenista, who will move to center field this season. “That’s all we care about right now. We’re not playing pro ball right now. (The accolades) are great and everything, but we’ve got to write our own legacy here.”
Trey Vickers will miss this weekend’s series with a strained hamstring, but will be a four-year starter at shortstop after hitting .296 last season. Jordan Boyer, a junior who led WSU in RBIs last season, will fill in for Vickers, while junior Luke Ritter will start at second base.
Dayton Dugas, Alex Jackson and Travis Young bring experience in the outfield, while sophomore Noah Croft and senior Gunnar Troutwine will split time at catcher. Mason O’Brien is expected to take over at first base and bat cleanup.
“There are a lot of good players here and we had multiple guys go out and have big summers and it’s brought light back to Wichita State baseball,” Jenista said. “There’s a lot of good stuff going on around here and this is the year people are going to find that out.”
The biggest question mark will be if WSU can improve its pitching after posting a 4.75 team ERA and allowing 55 home runs last season.
Junior Codi Heuer (2-2, 4.42 ERA) will get the nod for Friday’s opener, while freshman Liam Eddy is likely to start Saturday. Junior Connor Lungwitz is a candidate to start Sunday, as left-handers Alex Segal and Cody Tyler both recover from injury.
“The main thing we need to do is pitch a lot better than we did last year,” Butler said. “Offensively, we’ve been pretty good but pitching is the No. 1 concern. We’ve had a good fall and a good spring, so we’re ready to take off.”