Inside the Mind of WVU Baseball: Leopards, Boars and Gorillas
After preseason polls predicted them to slot in at the bottom of the conference, WVU Baseball surged out to pace the Big 12 with a 14-6 conference record. While their outstanding level of play has been the story (and deservingly so), starting shortstop Tevin Tucker said they laid the framework for that success at the end of the 2022 season, when they fell just short of making the NCAA Tournament.
“This year we’re trying to make sure we handle everything we need to handle to make sure that we get in that tournament,” Tucker said. “We’re trying to play with a chip on our shoulders…every game is the biggest game.”
While the pain of the tournament slight remains fresh for Tucker, who’s played for the Mountaineers since 2019, much of the rest of the team can’t say the same thing. The Mountaineers dealt with a major roster turnover in the offseason, with 15 true freshman players and a handful of transfers at key positions. More than half of their roster wasn’t on the team at this time last year.
Tucker said that despite the fresh faces, the team hit it off from the first week of the fall semester. That helped all of them adopt that hungry mentality.
“As soon as we came in in the fall, we kinda got used to each other. We went on a fall trip and everybody just kinda [peeled] back their layers, just started being themselves. We went on a camping trip… we go for like the weekend, [a] little team bonding. ” Tucker said. “We felt like we were a big family. New guys, older guys, we all feel like we’re a family.”
Tucker said he didn’t take to the camping trip right away: with five seasons to pick up the pastime, though, he became used to it.
“We’ve done it the past five years I’ve been here,” Tucker said. “It wasn’t my forte [before], but it’s not too bad.”
Know Your Role
Tucker said that during the first few weeks of the school year the Mountaineers determine which general role each player fits best in, setting the table for how the season will play out.
“Everybody knows their role. We first identify our roles in the fall: we have the Boars, the Leopards, and the Gorillas,” Tucker said. “Everybody kinda knows what group they’re in, what their identity is, everybody is just trying to stick to it, keep going as a collective group and keep getting better.”
What do those categories mean, then?
“The leopards are basically like the leadoff-type guys, who steal, [are] tough [to] strike out, kinda a gritty hitter. A boar is a person who leaves the situation better than they found it, and then a gorilla…drives [runs] in,” Tucker said. “We have a little print out of what we are, what group we may be in, and it’s in our locker so we can see it every day, what your identity is and what type of player you need to be.”
Tucker fits right in with the leopards. He’s the team’s leadoff hitter, who spent much of the season in the number nine spot, turning the lineup over with opportunistic walks and hits.
Tucker’s .335 batting average is second to only superstar second baseman JJ Wetherholt for the team lead. For a player who struggled to hit his own weight during his first three seasons as a starter, Tucker’s offensive renaissance played a huge role in the Mountaineers’ surprising season.
A Career Revitalized
Tucker said his blistering bat—one good enough to earn the long-time defensive specialist Big 12 Player of the Week honors for the first time in his career—stems from a change in offensive philosophy.
“I would say just relaxing, I’m just trying to have fun,” Tucker said. “The first couple years I was kinda pressing, trying to do a little too much, and then if I didn’t get a hit I’d be very upset.”
Even the best batters fail the vast majority of the time in baseball, so that outlook didn’t prepare him well for struggles at the plate. Tucker said he learned to find success in his failures, grinding out at-bats even if he didn’t manage to make it on base.
“This year I just wanted to kinda understand that the game is already hard, hitting is very hard,” Tucker said. “So, just take what the defense gives you and as long as you have a good approach and stay to that approach at the plate, that’s a win.”
Tucker didn’t just change his mentality. He also changed his swing.
“Just trying to stay short to the ball, stay in the middle of the field, not chase hits, really, just chase having good AB’s [at-bats].”
He performed well enough to earn the No. 1 spot when Wetherholt, the incumbent leadoff hitter, went down with a hand injury. Tucker reacted to the promotion with his newfound stoicism.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m first, ninth, fifth, fourth, eighth, whenever I’m at, I just want to have a good AB and pass it on to the next guy,” Tucker said. “I just wait before the game to hear where my name is at. It doesn’t matter where it’s at, I just want to be in the lineup and help the team win.”