Feb. 5, 2014
By STEVE COTTON
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - You couldn’t blame Marshall baseball coach Jeff Waggoner if he assigned players to deliver doughnuts, juice and coffee each morning to the construction crew working on the school’s new Indoor Athletic Facility.
The Herd mentor dreams day and night about the time, coming soon, when his team can field some ground balls regardless of Mother Nature’s fickle nature.
The Huntington winter of 2014 would be ultra-discouraging to the coach if he didn’t know that things will be entirely different a year from now.
“The Indoor Athletic Facility is needed so badly, and now it’s so close,” said Waggoner on the eve of his eighth Marshall season. “Our preparation would be so much different and so much better right now if it were complete, and seeing the construction progress every day is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s going to be huge for us when it opens, and not only for the baseball team but for the entire athletic department.”
This year’s run of snow and single-digit temperatures has made preparations for the Feb. 14 season opener more difficult for the Herd than normal, even cutting out work the team hoped it could get in at its Kennedy Center home on W.Va. Route 2, where the diamond is now outfitted with an artificial turf infield.
“The weather has been extra tough this year,” Waggoner said. “It’s difficult, but we’re not the only ones in this boat, and it’s our job to do the best we can to overcome it.”
While a decent amount of work can still be done in the team’s makeshift Gullickson Hall gym workout area – hitters getting batting cage work and pitchers throwing off portable, composite mounds for a make-do bullpen session – it’s just not the equivalent of having at least an infield surface available to work on defense.
“Sports is about repetition and consistency,” Waggoner said. “To be a good free throw shooter in basketball, you have to be on a court and practice, practice, practice your free throws. If you don’t get in the reps, there’s just no way to be consistent.
“We can get our hitters and pitchers some work even in Gullickson. But it’s impossible for an infielder to field a ground ball and then make his throw across the diamond when you don’t have a place and the space and an infield surface to do that.”
When the weather allows, the improvements at the Kennedy Center should already make a difference.
“In other years we’ve gotten onto the field at Edwards Stadium for some ground balls at least, but if the football team is working out there, or in the past the soccer teams were there, we might have only been able to schedule it for an hour,” Waggoner said. “Just having the turf infield now at the Kennedy Center lets us field ground balls whenever the weather permits.
“We can tell our guys how we’re going to work cutoffs and relays, but that’s not the same as practicing it. I can’t be mad at our guys in Winston-Salem (N.C.) when they make some errors on routine ground balls when they haven’t had the chance to field any.”
The Marshall season opens Feb. 14 against Georgetown in an event hosted by Wake Forest. The Herd plays Towson the next day and then concludes the trip with a double header against the host Demon Deacons on Sunday.
It’s the first in a pair of four-game weekends Waggoner scheduled in an attempt to get in as many games as possible before an earlier start to a Conference USA schedule that has grown to ten weekend series.
“We wanted go south and get in as many innings as we could to try to get us ready for Conference USA play,” Waggoner said. “Hopefully the weather becomes kind to us and we get in some of that work on the field before then, but even if we don’t get much at least we should have a chance to get work in during those weekends.
“It’ll hit quickly. We get a chance to play an ACC team right off the bat. Towson won the Colonial Athletic Association title last year and they’re going to be very good, too.”
The Thundering Herd will head back to North Carolina the following weekend for a three-game set at North Carolina A&T, then travels to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for a final tune-up prior to league play.
“That third weekend is probably our biggest test,” Waggoner said. “James Madison is very good. You have Duke. Coastal Carolina is a powerhouse and we wrap it up against Rhode Island. That’s a great weekend to get us ready for Conference USA action and East Carolina that very next weekend.”
The new look Conference USA has 13 baseball members this season, up from nine in past years. Each school will play 10 of the 12 possible opponents in the regular season; Marshall misses Rice and Charlotte in the 2014 regular season.
“Conference USA baseball was always great, and now it’s better than ever with the changes,” said Waggoner, whose team was picked No. 12 in a preseason poll of the league coaches. “The two Florida schools have real baseball traditions and FAU was one 17-inning game against North Carolina from going to the College World Series last season and they return everyone. They’re a Top-10 type team.
“Old Dominion has a new stadium and Charlotte has a new stadium and they’re in great recruiting areas and can be very good very quickly. UT-San Antonio – when you’re in Texas, you are surrounded by huge baseball talent. Louisiana Tech is in a great recruiting area. Middle Tennessee State is good.
“We’ve kept the conference tournament as an eight-team event, so it’s gotten a lot harder to make it to the tourney. The flip side is that everyone who gets to the tournament is a really good team and has a legit shot to go to a (NCAA) regional.”
With the calendar already turned to February, Waggoner and his staff feel the urgency and excitement upon the dawn of a new season.
“We have to make the most of whatever opportunities we have to get ready,” Waggoner said. “Regardless of how quickly we can or cannot get outside, we can still work on the mental game. Know our plays, know the situations.
“Maybe I can’t get on guys too bad for the physical errors when they haven’t had the reps yet, but there’s no excuse for mental mistakes. We don’t have to be outdoors in good weather to work on the mental part of the game, so we need to be sharp mentally from the start.”
This story first appeared in this week’s edition of the Herd Insider.