Posted: May 2, 2013 at 8:30 pm

By James Michael Carvelli, Matthew Fouty and Shelby Toompas

West Virginia University’s baseball team had spent the better part of the last decade near the bottom of the Big East Conference, and its fans didn’t think things could get any worse. They were wrong: the Mountaineers finished the 2012 season 23-32, their worst finish since 2004.

So when WVU tapped a new head coach last June to lead the team, fans didn’t have high expectations. Not only were the Mountaineers moving into an even more competitive conference (the Big 12), but their best pitcher was still benched after undergoing surgery for a torn ligament in his throwing elbow in 2011.

“They were dreadful a year ago,” said Joe Mitchin, who has been covering the Mountaineer baseball team for three years for WWVU-FM in Morgantown. So coming into the new season, Mitchin and others had very low expectations.

Now, however, it looks as though fans have once again been proved wrong. With just a few weeks remaining in the spring season, the Mountaineers sit in fourth place in the Big 12, with a 27-18 record and a 9-6 record against Big 12 opponents.

“I’m surprised because I didn’t think they would improve this much this soon,” Mitchin said. “I didn’t expect them to be as good as what they are.”

It wasn’t always that way.  After a decade of more losses than wins, the team had been picked by every Big 12 coach before the season started to finish in last place in the league. But they hadn’t counted on Randy Mazey, who left his job as an assistant coach at Texas Christian University to become the Mountaineers’ 19th head coach.

Head WVU baseball coach Randy Mazey looks on with eyes of determination.  His methods and leadership breathe new life into the once abysmal team.  (photo courtesy of WVU)

New head coach Randy Mazey has breathed new life into WVU’s once moribund baseball team. Photo courtesy of WVU.

Mazey, a 46-year old native of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, had been a head coach at two other schools, but he had left his coaching job at East Carolina University under a cloud, when he was relieved of his duties in 2005. Both Mazey and East Carolina have declined to talk about the reason behind the move.

But the players at WVU didn’t care about Mazey’s past. They liked his energy and his straight talk.

“He’s passionate,” says Harrison Musgrave, the pitcher who tore his ulnar collateral ligament in 2011. “Everything he does, he does it full-go and he loves what he does.”

It didn’t hurt that Musgrave was able to return to pitching this season and has come back stronger than ever. He has a 7-1 record so far in 2013 and recently won his second-straight Big 12 Pitcher of the Week honors following a shutout against Kansas.  Musgrave also earned National Pitcher of the Week honors twice following wins against Texas Tech and Texas.

Like the rest of his team, Musgrave came into the season with the mentality that there’s nothing to lose. Without many people expecting much from the team, the only thing its players could do was take people by surprise.

“We just have to come into every game with that mentality and keep positive as a team,” says Ryan Tuntland, third baseman.“You have to let the losses go, turn the page and move on to the next one.”

After a bit of an up and down start this season, the Mountaineers fell on hard times in the form of three-straight losses to Baylor and Ohio State. In two losses to the Bears, WVU was outscored 19-1 and then it was shut out 9-0 by the Buckeyes in Columbus later in the week.

That was when Mazey had a long talk with his team.

“We told them that confidence is a choice,” he recalls. “You can either choose to be confident or you can choose not to be, regardless of what happened the last three games.”

A phoenix rises from the ashes.  Now that Musgrave is healed from Tommy John surgery, he has the best pitching stats on the team.  (photo courtesy of WVU)

Now that Musgrave has healed after surgery on his elbow, he has the best pitching stats on the team. Photo courtesy of WVU

After that, the Mountaineers came back.  Since losing those three, they have won 10 of their last 12 – including the first Big 12 sweep in the team’s history against Kansas.

The players credit their new head coach with a large part of their newfound success.

“He cares,” Musgrave says. “That’s really all that you can ask of someone that is trying to teach you and make you a better person.”