By Cam Huffman
The West Virginia University baseball team was obviously a big winner over the weekend — I mean, a sweep of Kansas and a 9-6 conference record for a team that many forecasted would struggle to win a single conference game is about as unbelievable as a football “expert” picking EJ Manuel over Geno Smith. But the other big winner was Beckley and the surrounding area.
Linda K. Epling Stadium obviously has all the necessary amenities for hosting a big-time college baseball series, but there had to be some hesitation in the minds of WVU officials about how the community would support the team’s trip to the scenic stadium.
If Morgantown, a city of 30,000, is lucky to get a couple hundred people to the ballpark to support the Mountaineers, and Charleston, a city of more than 50,000, has struggled to break the 1,000 mark in the games it has hosted this season, how could Beckley, with a population of a little less than 18,000, be expected to put anybody in the seats?
But on Friday night, when the lights came on and the umpire yelled, “Play ball,” there were more than 2,000 loud and rowdy fans cheering on the Mountaineers.
“This was my first time playing in Beckley, and I loved it,” said WVU first baseman Ryan McBroom. “We had (big crowds) each game, and they were all behind us each pitch. I loved playing out here. The surface is beautiful, the ballpark is beautiful, so I enjoyed it a lot.”
That was also the feeling of first-year head coach Randy Mazey, who visited Linda K. Epling Stadium for a Miners game shortly after being named the program’s new skipper and decided playing a few games in Beckley wouldn’t be a bad idea.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Mazey, who has to be considered a frontrunner for Big 12 Coach of the Year, if not national coach of the year, honors. “We’ve been playing on the road so much. This was the first time we’ve been in the state for a while.
“We had great crowds out here. They had the ‘Let’s Go Mountaineers’ chant going, and our guys respond to that. That gives us energy and passion to play, and hopefully the people that came to watch us will come back because they liked what they saw.”
There’s little question the fans will come back. They’ll have that opportunity on May 14 when the Mountaineers play in-state rival Marshall in the rubber game of a three-game series, and I’d be shocked if there are many empty seats.
But will the Mountaineer faithful — some of whom made the journey from Fayette, Nicholas, Summers, Wyoming and Greenbrier counties to see their favorite team — have the chance to see another Big 12 showcase?
Stadium owner Doug Epling said he didn’t see why not.
“We hope to — and feel pretty confident that we will — have something here next year, too,” he said. “This series went wonderful — 1-0, 4-3 and then (the third game) goes into 12 innings for another one-run game. We had a record-setting crowd (Friday) night and a good crowd on Saturday.”
In fact, Epling said, the Mountaineers could come to Beckley more than once next season. WVU has already played one Big 12 series at Charleston’s Appalachian Power Park this year and will play two more before the season’s complete. Epling is hopeful Beckley can get multiple series next year.
“We would hope,” he said. “It seems like everything worked out. We had a good time and got along well with everyone, and I think they appreciated it.”
Mike Parsons, WVU’s deputy director of athletics, said no decision has been made on where the Mountaineers will play in 2014.
“We’re not sure,” he said. “We’re going to evaluate at the end of the season and see how it all turned out. Obviously, our stadium won’t be open until 2015. We had hoped we had been in it in 2014. But we’re going to wait and look at the end of the year, see how it looked, see how the grades are with the kids and see what the attendance figures are. But this is exactly what we wanted.
“We were glad to bring the team into the Beckley area. To have a big crowd Friday night and then another big crowd Saturday, despite the weather, is what we wanted. Then you put the sweep on top of it, and it’s all that much better.”
For WVU baseball fans, the weekend was perfect, and there’s no reason why the Mountaineers should not be back next year — and even beyond.
Southern West Virginia is loaded with die-hard Mountaineer fans, but the trip to Morgantown isn’t an easy one. It’s at least a three-hour drive for most in this part of the state, and work schedules often get in the way of taking in a game.
But the fans proved one thing this weekend.
If you bring them the Mountaineers, they’ll be there to welcome them with open arms. For both parties, it’s a match made in Almost Heaven.
— E-mail: chuffman@
register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.