Creighton’s baseball team will bus from Omaha to Wichita for Tuesday’s game and then bus 783 miles to Cincinnati to play Xavier.
Coach Ed Servais can’t wait. The trip will serve as a reminder of his school’s time in the Missouri Valley Conference, when the Bluejays bussed and players bonded over card games, school work and pranks. Now in the Big East, the Bluejays fly to most conference weekends. Servais mandates at least one bus trip each season. Airplane travel makes sense for trips to the East Coast, but players scatter in small groups in the airport. On the bus, they’re together and Servais likes that.
“It develops some of that chemistry that we used to do on those bus trips to Wichita or Southern Illinois or Evansville,” he said. “It forces you to talk. These players don’t talk to each other very much because of cell phones and social media. It forces you to sit by a teammate and maybe learn more about where they’re from, their background.”
Creighton (32-10) moved into the Baseball America rankings at No. 25 on Monday and its power ranking (RPI) is No. 31. On Tuesday, the Bluejays and Wichita State (17-31) will play for the first time since Creighton departed the MVC after the 2013 season. The move to the Big East — with seven private baseball schools — changed everything as far as travel plans and little on the field. The Bluejays remain the same pitching-and-defense bunch that regularly contended in the MVC. They won the regular-season title in 2011, the tournament title in 2012 and finished third in 2013 before exiting for a bigger men’s basketball stage, bigger cities and like-minded institutions.
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The Bluejays continued winning in the Big East, finishing first in 2014 and second in 2015. This season, they are in first place with a 10-2 record, one game ahead of Xavier with six to play. Creighton leads the Big East with a 2.75 ERA and a fielding percentage of .981.
“The formula hasn’t changed,” Servais said. “It’s about throwing strikes and playing defense. Then, create offense.”
With a 5-5 record against teams in the top 100 of the RPI and no losses to teams below 200, Creighton is in strong position to earn its first NCAA bid since 2012. That task is more difficult in the Big East, which ranks No. 18 in the RPI, than it is most seasons in the MVC.
Servais tries not to pay too much attention to at-large talk. The Jays lost in the championship game of the Big East Tournament in 2014 and 2015.
“If we can get this team to peak at the right time, all that other stuff will take of itself,” he said. “We still really haven’t hit our stride offensively.”
The Wichita State-Creighton rivalry heated up in baseball in the late 1980s when former Bluejays coach Jim Hendry boosted the program. It peaked with two meetings in the 1991 College World Series. Servais inherited that history in 2004 and quickly established the Bluejays as a significant obstacle for WSU.
Creighton won its first MVC title in 2005 and finished second behind the Shockers in 2004 and 2007. In 2007, the teams met for two MVC Tournament championship games in Springfield, Mo., with Creighton winning the final one and both teams on their way to the NCAAs. In 2011, Creighton won another MVC title, one game ahead of WSU.
All those memories will come back when the Creighton bus pulls up to Eck Stadium. He will think of his team’s execution vs. WSU’s power. He will remember a 2009 no-hitter by the Bluejays in the MVC Tournament, later overshadowed by a frustrating loss in the title game to WSU, and a thrilling win over the Shockers in the 2011 tournament in Omaha. In 2013, WSU sent the Bluejays out of the MVC with an 11-4 win in an elimination game.
Most of all, he will remember facing former WSU coach Gene Stephenson and marveling at what Stephenson built.
“No greater competitor that I’ve ever gone up against than Gene Stephenson and (pitching coach) Brent Kemnitz said. “Servais said. “Those guys were gritty. If you came out of there with a win, which was very difficult, you accomplished something. I’m going to miss that a little bit.”
No. 25 Creighton at Wichita State
▪ When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
▪ Where: Eck Stadium
▪ Records: CU 32-10, WSU 17-31
▪ Pitchers: CU, RH Austin Stroschein (0-1, 4.61 ERA); WSU, RH Codi Heuer (1-0, 8.24)
▪ Radio: KNSS, 1330-AM
▪ TV: Cox 22