Expectations for a team become quite clear after it makes a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — make it back to the dance for another shot at the national title.
Entering 2021, West Virginia baseball held that exact hope. After one of the best starts in the history of the program in the truncated 2020 campaign, the Mountaineers returned to the diamond for 2021 and slipped below .500 for the first time since 2012.
On the surface, this doesn’t look too great for Mountaineer fans — but in between those numbers lie several high points, difficult curveballs, some rising stars and a lot of memorable moments across the schedule.
“It was one adversity after the next with this team,” said WVU coach Randy Mazey.
The cancellation of 2020 led to eligibility relief for players across the country — meaning, seniors across the country (and their underclassmen teammates) were afforded an extra season on the college diamond.
“That was great news to a lot of people, because they’re getting seven or eight players back that they were planning on losing,” Mazey said. “That wasn’t the case with us.”
Mazey’s lineup returned just one senior from the year before, Kevin Brophy, while adding another in graduate transfer in Hudson Byorick from Wofford. Meanwhile, 10 freshmen were added to the roster, while an entire class of sophomores (including redshirts) geared up for their first-ever full season of college baseball.
At the same time, opposing teams were gearing up with experienced talent. In fact, several writers — and even Mazey himself — touted the abundance of talent across the sport.
“We went into a season where everyone else was a little bit older and we were still younger, which is fun,” Mazey said. “It gives you good energy as a coach to coach all these younger guys and try and mold them into what you want them to be later on.”
Still, Mazey conceded that the disparity was a short-term disadvantage, but a good sign for the future at the same time. Plenty of young guys got on the field for WVU — nine pitchers made ten or more appearances for WVU in their first full slate of college ball, while seven position players played 30 or more games for the Mountaineers.
Some names were already known, like first baseman Matt McCormick, who had an OPS of 1.070 in his 16-game freshman year, and Victor Scott, who logged 10 hits with a homer in 15 games, while dazzling with his glove in the outfield.
McCormick was back this year, leading the team with 90 total bases and an OPS of .835, while knocking a team runner-up seven homers. Scott wasn’t too shabby himself, manning the center spot of arguably the speediest outfield in the country and batting .232 — a marked improvement over his first year.
At the same time, Mazey introduced a lot of new names into the Mountaineer lexicon. The first was Mikey Kluska, who exploded onto the scene in March when he blasted a walk-off home run against Central Michigan. The White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia native was one of the bright spots in a tough season, hitting over .300 well into April, but saw his numbers (and playing time) dip in the closing weeks of the season. He finished with a .239 average and a .633 OPS as he landed on the All-Big 12 Freshman Team alongside weekend starter Ben Hampton.
“I always think the future is bright,” Mazey said. “I think that those guys’ time clocks have been sped up a little bit because they got to play so much this year because of all the adversity and that’s just going to serve them well moving forward in their career.”
The youthful Mountaineers were dealt several tough hands throughout the season. First came the team’s COVID-related stoppage, forcing WVU to step away from the diamond for a week before returning with a shorthanded lineup.
Then, an unexpected wrench was thrown in the proverbial machine when Mazey’s son, Weston, suffered a traumatic injury that forced his dad to step away from the team. The skipper missed all of March as Weston — or “Wammer,” as he’s called — made a strong recovery in Atlanta.
Finally, Mazey returned to the Mountaineers’ dugout as they traveled to Oklahoma State. WVU welcomed him back with a series-opening win over the Cowboys behind a dominant showing from ace Jackson Wolf — one of many for the lefty over the course of the season.
Wolf was undoubtedly the team’s lethal weapon on defense, fanning 104 batters over the course of the season as he picked up a 6-5 record and 3.03 ERA in 14 starts. The lefty was thrusted into a leadership role in his fourth season with the Mountaineers, acting as a role model on and off the mound while keeping the mood high in the dugout with his famous dance moves.
“It was a learning process for me trying to take over that leadership role because for the past three years I’ve been…in the shadows of Alek Manoah and all those older guys, and there were a bunch of them,” he said. “So I never really had a leadership role, I kind of just sat back and was a sponge.”
His last two starts in the Old Gold and Blue happened to be against No. 2 Texas, taking wins in both for the highest-ranked wins in program history. The second start was especially a career highlight — Wolf squared off against the top-seeded Longhorns in the Big 12 Tournament and allowed just one run and five hits as he amassed seven strikeouts in a complete game performance.
Wolf earned a spot on the All-Big 12 Second Team and led a group of four teammates in Big 12 honors.
Two upperclassmen — Austin Davis and Paul McIntosh — earned All-Big 12 Honorable Mention nods as they led the team’s offense, both of whom found hot streaks in the homestretch of the season.
Davis ended the season with the top batting average on the team (.320), catching fire and hitting .381 over the last 26 games of the season. The speedy outfielder also burst on the national scene with a pair of diving grabs that landed him all over TV and social media.
McIntosh, WVU’s senior catcher, also found his stride as the season wound down, finishing with a team-high eight homers, adding 28 RBI and an OPS of .824 (both second on the team among qualifying hitters). He was especially hot in May, when he knocked three dingers over the fence in a five-game span against Pitt, Oklahoma and Marshall.
Ultimately and unfortunately for the Mountaineers, those late hot streaks came without a Big 12 series win, and an exit from the Big 12 Tournament — but that doesn’t mean the team left the season in a bad place.
“Our kids played hard the whole way through,” Mazey said. “It came down to the last pitch. We had a chance to beat Texas in the conference tournament after beating them twice in the previous week, so I’m really, really proud of the way the guys grinded this thing out.”