College baseball starts Friday. Let’s put away the silliness of a sport with so much potential starting in February. It’s cold in February in much of the country. It’s also basketball season in much of the country, everywhere except the SEC.
Back on track.
Wichita State enters coach Todd Butler’s second season on Friday at Sam Houston State. It’s the first time WSU opens the season with a road series since 2007 at Pepperdine, so that’s new. And it leads right into the first of three questions to ponder for the new-look Shockers this season.
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No. 1 — Can the Shockers win on the road?
WSU is challenging itself with the trip to Sam Houston State (an NCAA at-large team the past three seasons), trips to TCU and Long Beach State, a one-gamer at Texas and the usual Big 12 opponents. In addition, WSU plays four MVC series on the road, including a season-ending trip to preseason favorite Dallas Baptist.
It plays three MVC series at home — thanks a lot, Creighton.
With 24 newcomers and one pitcher (Sam Tewes) with a start in a Shocker uniform, WSU can’t count on experience carrying it in hostile ballparks.
No. 2 — How does coach Todd Butler handle his two-way players?
Sam Hilliard and Willie Schwanke are critical. They will serve as starting pitchers and hit. The Shockers need them to produce in both roles. Butler knows he needs to give them plenty of rest to keep their arms and minds fresh. Hilliard will start the season as the mid-week starter, in part because Butler wants him fresh and at first base during the weekend. Schwanke, who can play third and first, will throw Sunday against Sam Houston State.
No. 3 — How quickly will the junior-college transfers adjust to the NCAA game?
WSU rarely relied heavily on juco players under former coach Gene Stephenson. In recent years, the list of juco transfers to make a significant impact is short — Andy Dirks, Preston Springer and Brandon Peterson seems to cover it. WSU brought in several others with gaudy junior college numbers and those numbers didn’t translate.
The Shockers need their juco guys to produce.
The good news is several were drafted, including Hilliard and fellow pitchers Isaac Anderson and Chase Williams. Indiana State, in particular, has made a living on juco pitchers who step in quickly and perform. WSU coaches like the size, athletic ability and baseball I.Q. of their recruits, naturally. Collegiate Baseball ranked WSU the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation, in large part because of the transfers.
The Shockers, with three returning starters, need to hit on a lot of junior-college talent to make this season a success.