Wichita State Shockers

First-place Redbirds await Shockers

Illinois State coach Mark Kingston drew on good experiences to banish losing attitudes.

Omaha experiences — the kind no college baseball player can ignore.

"He brought a whole different mindset," Redbirds pitcher Ryan Copeland said. "In the past, guys didn't necessarily come to the ballpark expecting to win. Now they do."

Kingston, in his first season in charge after serving as an assistant in 2009, didn't take long to push the Redbirds in the right direction. They are 20-16, 8-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference and in first place. Illinois State last enjoyed a winning Valley record in 2001, so Kingston makes it clear his team is building.

The Redbirds host second-place Wichita State (27-15, 8-4) this weekend in a three-game series that could determine the conference champion. The Shockers are on a roll in after big wins over Kansas (22-7) and Oklahoma State (13-7) in mid-week games. Their road resume, however, is shaky. WSU is 6-11 on the road, hitting .236 with a 7.04 ERA.

"Statistically, it shows it's been tough," WSU designated hitter Preston Springer said. "We're not worried about that. I feel we should feel just as comfortable playing on any other field as we are (at home)."

The Shockers play six MVC games after this weekend; Illinois State nine. WSU must win two of three to stay in the race, and a sweep is highly desirable. That won't be easy against a team that has won four of its five weekend series.

The Redbirds don't do anything spectacularly — they rank around the middle of the MVC in hitting (.291), pitching (5.55 ERA) and fielding (.961). What they do well is win MVC games with timely hitting, execution and a good bullpen.

Second baseman Kevin Tokarski leads the MVC with a .455 batting average and 20 doubles. Closer Kenny Long, a lefty, is 4-2 with five saves and a 1.22 ERA.

"We're a very workmanlike team," Kingston said. "We're not going to blow anybody out of the water."

Kingston does know something about blowouts. He was an assistant on the 2001 Miami team that won the College World Series. He helped coach Tulane to Omaha in 2005.

"You can't question a guy who's won it all," Tokarski said.

With those credentials, the Redbirds listened when he demanded 6 a.m. workouts. He made it clear in the first meeting in August that he didn't accept excuses.

"You were going to work," Copeland said. "True work. Not just doing it to be doing it."

One of Kingston's demands is for the Redbirds to be at their best late in games. Last weekend, they won two games in the ninth inning against Southern Illinois and a third with four runs in the eighth.

"When you win a close game, it boosts your confidence that much more," Tokarski said.

Big weekend series are a new thing at a school with no recent success. Illinois State has never won an MVC regular-season title. A new stadium and a few wins are drawing crowds on campus. Copeland said this weekend's series is a topic of conversation in class and on Facebook.

"The amount of media coverage has doubled or tripled," he said. "People want to talk to you."

Kingston sees this season as the beginning. He is just starting to build a program that he hopes can compete for MVC titles. Bass Field, with its new grandstand, dugouts and press box, is an indication the school is serious about baseball.

"When you walk recruits on campus, the stadium is something you want to show them," Kingston said. "In the past, coaches would shy away from it. Now we have a facility in place that is probably the premier baseball facility, on campus, in the state of Illinois."