Last night, the South Carolina Gamecocks won their second consecutive NCAA College World Series title on the field pictured above. That is TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska: the shining new replacement for old Rosenblatt Stadium, which hosted the CWS from 1950 up until this year, when the event moved into these fancy new digs.
As last night's game neared its conclusion, I got to thinking about how little attention West Virginia University baseball garners, and how equally amazing it is that in 60-plus years West Virginia has never had a team qualify to be in the last eight that go to Omaha. WVU has made it to the NCAA tournament 22 times, but not since 1996, and if you think about it, that is now four football coaches ago. Yet, the same man, Greg Van Zant, still heads the baseball program, and clearly isn't held to the same win-or-else standard as those in the two major revenue sports. But, after a little digging, it seems to me that maybe Van Zant shouldn't be held to that high standard. It might just be that a single factor limits the possibilities of Mountaineer baseball, and it isn't coaching. It's location.
College baseball on the whole, has far less resources dedicated to it than other collegiate sports. That is probably because, unlike the NFL and the NBA, Major League Baseball has never relied on the NCAA to provide a de facto farm system. The Major League clubs have always had their own systems in place, and a great many players that make it to the big leagues never darken the doors of any institution of higher learning, choosing instead to go straight from high school to the minors. An old baseball scout friend of mine once told me that he "kept an eye on upperclassmen that might have bloomed out of sight" but that collegiate baseball would always be more of a "developmental league" because the most-talented kids were going to opt to be professionals right away.
This lack of resources is evident when one tries to do something as simple as compile a list of the last 10 year's worth of Final Top 25 polls from Baseball America. I could only find final polls for the last six seasons, but those in themselves, might provide enough of a snapshot to absolve Van Zant of the charges so many of us have levied against him. I was going to list each school that appeared multiple times, but it became redundant, as the names really don't change much, only their placings. Schools that dominate that list are: South Carolina, Cal State Fullerton, Rice, Clemson, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, LSU, Florida, Arizona, Arizona St., etc.
What do they all have in common? The South, the West, and the sun. So, I began looking for schools making an appearance from locations north of Morgantown, and in just these six polls, only Oregon St., Michigan, Nebraska, Minnesota (do they play indoors?), Washington St., Oregon, and Connecticut (this year) did so. The only Big East teams to make any of the polls: Louisville and UConn.
Further, considering just the teams that have played in the College World Series final, schools from the north are poorly represented. Not since Eastern Michigan lost to Arizona in 1976 has a school north of Morgantown even made it, and the last one to win it all was Ohio State in 1966. Which begs the question: can WVU be relevant in baseball when the season begins in the midst of February snows, prompting the team to begin with two-weeks' worth of games in the south? Can WVU recruit the necessary talent to compete with schools that bask in the sun while we are still shoveling driveways? Can Mountaineer fans reasonably expect more from Van Zant?
The answers to each of those questions may be "no," but it would be nice if it appeared that baseball mattered a little bit to the athletic department. The Mountaineers last game, a 1-0 loss to Notre Dame on May 26th, isn't even updated on the msnsportsnet.com/schedule/results tab. I had to click on the stats tab and read the 2011 final stats PDF to find that score.
Perhaps, WVU baseball can't overcome this geographic obstacle to national significance. But is it a fair question to ask, could WVU baseball be better? There is no sugar coating that in the last two seasons, the Mountaineers are two games under .500, beat only nine teams with winning records, and arguably had only one quality win, a 9-2 victory over a ranked Louisville team on April Fool's Day this year. Perhaps we can forgive Van Zant for not getting us on to a field in Omaha, but does that mean we have to forget what it's like to compete with, say, UConn, for Big East titles? UConn, after all, is way north of Morgantown.