Former Wichita State baseball coach Gene Stephenson refused to play road games without a return visit, a philosophy formed over 36 seasons building a national power.
College baseball is different and WSU’s baseball program is in a different place than it was for most of Stephenson’s tenure. Coach Todd Butler, who replaced Stephenson in June, sees value in taking the Shockers on the road to face top opponents. He won’t demand a visit to Eck Stadium from all of them.
Next season, WSU will play at Texas on April 7 with no return game scheduled. Butler wants to play at LSU — WSU coaches enjoy a good relationship with Tigers coach Paul Mainieri — and other powers.
“I want to play Texas, LSU, those type of people on the road to play in front of a hostile crowd, great atmosphere,” Butler said. “Hopefully, as we get teams that are more talented, that will be an advantage for us late in the year … when we have teams that get to postseason.”
Butler is confident WSU can continue to build a strong home schedule without requiring every opponent to visit Eck Stadium. The Shockers start a weekend series with TCU, home and home, next season in Fort Worth, and will play UC Santa Barbara at Eck Stadium and travel to Long Beach State.
The only way for the Shockers to play some top schools will be to go on the road.
“LSU doesn’t leave home, and neither does Texas,” he said.
WSU’s path to the College World Series is much more likely to run through road stops than it was for a significant stretch of Stephenson’s time. WSU hosted regionals nine times from 1990-2002. As the RPI became more important and more schools emphasized baseball, it grew harder to host. WSU last hosted a regional (and super regional) in 2007.
Next season will also mark the return of Oklahoma to the schedule for a single game at Eck Stadium. The prospects look good for starting a home-and-home series in 2016, according to assistant coach Brent Kemnitz. Those schools last played in 2009.
WSU last played at Texas in 1982, the only time the teams met in the regular season. Roger Clemens and Calvin Schiraldi pitched for the Longhorns, who swept a doubleheader 2-0 and 12-0. They met in the College World Series later that season and in 1989 and 1993 with WSU winning each time.
Thirty-four athletes earned All-Missouri Valley Conference softball honors in 2013. One Shocker — Erin Carney — made the first or second team.
WSU’s haul should increase significantly this season with the Shockers dramatically out-performing expectations by winning the MVC title. Coach Kristi Bredbenner expects sophomore first baseman Cacy Williams to win Rookie of the Year and makes a strong case for her to win Most Valuable Player honors.
“The player of the year has to be a person that’s made a big statement for that team,” Bredbenner said. “She’s my player of the year. She’s by far the best newcomer, easily.”
Williams’ statement came through in bold letters in Saturday’s doubleheader sweep of Illinois State. She homered twice and drove in five runs to help WSU clinch its first MVC title.
Entering the weekend, Williams, a transfer from Emporia State, led the Valley in batting average (.419), slugging percentage (.781), home runs (13), total bases (121) and runs (50). While batting leadoff most of the season, she ranks fifth in RBIs with 39. In conference games only, she ranked third with a .447 batting average, second with an .803 slugging percentage, 34 hits and 26 runs and third with seven home runs.
She committed one error in 50 games.
Bredbenner thinks those numbers merit All-American consideration and she submitted her case for the all-region team, the first step toward national honors.
Bredbenner regards Illinois State senior outfielder/first baseman Laura Canopy and Southern Illinois senior second baseman Jayna Spivey as Williams’ top competition for MVP. Canopy entered the weekend hitting .333 with 47 runs and seven home runs. Spivey entered the weekend hitting .353 with 17 doubles and four home runs.
The last Shocker to win conference MVP honors was shortstop Tina Lewis in 2003.
While Bredbenner is convinced Williams’ numbers make her the 2014 choice, she is concerned other coaches won’t see it that way, in part because some may resent WSU’s athletic success.
“I’ve only been in the Valley for three years, and some of that stuff sometimes matters, too,” she said. “People don’t like Wichita State. We’re kind of the team with all the money that no one really cares for. But I think all the softball coaches have a pretty good head on their shoulders. I’ve had a lot of great compliments from the coaches.”Worth noting —
WSU’s men‘s golf team will find out its NCAA regional destination on the Golf Channel during its morning show starting at 9 a.m. Regional play begins May 15. … Cowley College sophomore Jamesia Milton, from Duncan, Okla., signed a letter of intent with WSU’s track and field program. Milton won the NJCAA indoor title in the weight throw with a distance of 56 feet, 2 inches in March. She also finished fourth in the shot put at 44-8.