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Can WVU Baseball Remain a Perennial National Contender?

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Fresh on the heels of the deepest NCAA Tournament run in program history, two wins away from Omaha and a College World Series berth, it’s time to ask what’s next for WVU Baseball.

We’ve seen them build on success before: they needed to fill a number of holes in their roster following the 2023 season, which saw them embark on the best regular season performance in program history, going 40-20 and winning a share of the regular season Big 12 Championship. Those holes included their entire starting outfield leaving for the MLB Draft and each of their weekend starters transferring out or graduating. They responded with the aforementioned Super Regional run, the retool becoming a resounding success.

This offseason might prove a tougher task, with future MLB Draft lottery pick JJ Wetherholt almost certainly set to leave campus along with all-time program home run leader Grant Hussey, All-American starting pitcher Derek Clark and head coach Randy Mazey, the heart and soul of the Mountaineers’ baseball program since he took the job in 2012.

Now that the Mountaineers and their fans have a taste of tournament success—2024 was their first time ever making it through the first round—it’s logical to figure out the next steps for the program, and just how far they are from an elusive bid for Omaha.

Scouting Sabins

Newly-minted head coach Steve Sabins is the first variable to take into consideration. It seems like the plan for him to succeed Mazey has been in the works for years, with former WVU Baseball stars like Jackson Wolf and Victor Scott telling me that back in 2019, they expected Sabins to take charge—and do so successfully—someday.

Sabins could endure a learning curve as the captain of a program for the first time, but he’s learned from one of the very best since joining WVU in 2016. While Mazey won’t have a gameday role anymore, he looks to remain involved with the program in some fashion, presumably just a phone call away as Sabins figures things out.

Re-Introducing Steve Sabins as Next WVU Baseball Head Coach

Another critical strength of Sabins is his ability as a recruiter – his fingerprints are all over the rosters of the past few years, the transfer portal and recruiting successes. The Mountaineers logged top-40 recruiting classes every year between 2018 and 2023, including consecutive top-25 finishes to kick off that stretch.

Recruiting isn’t everything, as the Mountaineers’ staff still needs to develop and adequately manage the talents they bring in, but in the imbalanced world of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals and the transfer portal, it’s hard to get any piece of the pie without recruiting success.

Keep Doing What They’re Doing: Building Through the Portal

While most don’t look at the Mountain State and its neighbors as a premier location for recruiting young baseball talent, the WVU Baseball coaching staff has done an excellent job in recent years, finding and developing nearby stars like Wetherholt, Hussey and Logan Sauve… many of whom received entered the program as diamonds in the rough.

They’ve supplemented that talent with even more hidden gems out of the portal: pitchers like Blaine Traxel and Clark and position players like Caleb McNeely and Landon Wallace. This year alone, they saw major contributions from Ben Lumsden, Kyle West, Brodie Kresser and Reed Chumley—to name but a few.

Kyle West looks on as WVU played against North Carolina on June 8, 2024, in the Super Regionals of the NCAA Tournament at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / WV Sports Now)

Kyle West looks on as WVU played against North Carolina on June 8, 2024, in the Super Regionals of the NCAA Tournament at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / WV Sports Now)

Sabins and company have shown they can succeed in recruiting even in the free-for-all era of the transfer portal. They may not always compete with the Florida’s and Oklahoma’s of the world in luring top-end recruits, but they’ve found a niche that works for them and has turned into postseason win.

Sprinkle in some nationally-ranked recruits like Alek Manoah, and you have the building blocks for sustained success.

How Far Away is WVU Baseball?

With the exception of the players they’ll lose to the draft this season, WVU Baseball might be there already. Tyler Switalski (yet another portal success)’s performance on the mound in Game 2 of the Super Regional deserved a win – 7.1 innings pitched and one earned run allowed while facing the No. 4 team in the country on the road in a must-win game.

Admittedly, you can’t expect linear development from any athlete, and baseball players are perhaps one of the best examples of that fact. For every championship-worthy performance Switalski could uncork, he’d also get knocked around against Kansas and Texas Tech.

The Mountaineers’ pitching staff took their lumps this year, but quite a bit of that inconsistency came from things they couldn’t control. Clark missed roughly a month after a comebacker fractured his skull; closer David Hagaman went down for the season, while Aidan Major began the year as the Friday starter before injuries forced him into the bullpen.

They hosted a Regional in 2019 and had another chance at it in 2023 – playing playoff baseball in front of a raucous home crowd could ease their path to Omaha.

The Round Robin and best of three tournaments found in the NCAA Tournament may not possess the same level of randomness that a single-elimination tournament like March Madness boasts, but there’s still plenty of room for a team to get hot at the right time. West Virginia’s tear through the Tucson Regional this year is one such example.

A smooth handoff to begin the Sabins era, allowing the Mountaineers to capitalize on the recruiting momentum their postseason run will provide, will help WVU Baseball remain in the national discussion. This is a critical juncture for the program, but one they enter with a healthy head of steam.

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