morgantown — It has not been a very good year for West Virginia University sports.
The football team went only 8-5, lost its third straight bowl game and lost its head coach.
The men’s basketball team lost 21 games, with its last loss to Coastal Carolina in the College Basketball Invitational.
The women’s basketball team was passed over for the NCAA Tournament.
The rifle team did not add to its 19 NCAA national championships even though it got to host the event for the first time in school history
That is why the school — and, yes, the state — so badly needed the feel-good story that was the baseball team’s run to Omaha.
Yes, the most disheartening and disastrous of endings came when Texas A&M eliminated the Mountaineers last Sunday after working hard to host a NCAA regional tournament for the first time since 1955.
The walk-off grand slam that completed the Aggies’ rally brought tears to players and fans alike, and the fans took the loss as just another way to add to the persecution complex that has grown over the years.
But what the loss couldn’t do was take away the hope and excitement the baseball team created, and the excitement that the fans — no matter how rabid or how casual a fan they might have been — bought into.
The run was the result of a careful building plan by coach Randy Mazey and the school’s administration. More than that, however, it was proof once again of just how true the one-time DuPont commercial slogan — “Better things for better living through chemistry” — really is.
What we had was rare chemistry within a team made of lovable characters on a mission, and between that team and its community. While the love may have started off small, it grew statewide as the season progressed.
This was a team built straight from the coalfields of West Virginia.
The Mountaineers’ star player began the season an unknown, a mountain of a man who stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 260 pounds. Through sweat and hard work, through belief in himself and driven by passion, Alek Manoah rose to such heights that he wound up as the No. 11 pick in the MLB draft after having been named college baseball’s National Pitcher of the Year.
Manoah was always an open book on the mound, wearing his heart on his sleeve and facing every problem the way true West Virginians face them: head on and without taking a step back.
But this was more than Manoah. This was a team with a center fielder who made plays that bordered on the spectacular and was willing to run face first into the center field wall trying to make another, a team that had a flare for drama, complete with Darius Hill’s walk-off home run on his Senior Day, and with a catcher out of Round Rock, Texas, who no one wanted out of high school and also wound up going in the draft.
This was a baseball team that brought sunshine into the shadows that had been cast over the athletic program this year.
West Virginia is known as a state where football is king, and its best known athletes were basketball stars Jerry West and Hot Rod Hundley, but in the coal towns in the old days when the mines were humming, baseball was a community centerpiece.
The website coalheritage.wv.gov offers up a piece by Gene Worthington that captures just how important the sport was to West Virginia. Games were played on Sundays, and entire mining towns would gather for them.
And what transpired with this year’s WVU team was simply an extension of what baseball did for the miners of old: it brought pride and a sense of belonging to the population.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter at @bhertzel.