499 And Counting
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Greg Van Zant was perfectly content to stay home and spend a quiet summer evening playing with his infant daughter Reese. There was certainly no harm in taking one day off from the cut-throat business of college baseball to enjoy some down time with the family, he thought.
But that little voice that occupies the brain of all coaches kept whispering … you better get your rear end up to Steubenville, Ohio to watch the OVAC baseball all-star game. You never know, Joe Jordano or Joe Carbone might be there …
Van Zant was sure he already had things covered. He watched the West Virginia all-star team practice earlier that week, discovering what he thought was a pretty good right-handed pitcher from Wheeling named Corey Walter who touched 86 (mph) on his radar gun – someone to keep an eye on down the road after a couple of years in junior college.
Plus, with it being so late in the summer, the chances of seeing a good, unsigned guy playing in the game were about as likely as Zsa Zsa Gabor having another baby, right?
But the voice persisted.
“I finally told my wife, ‘I know it’s going to be a waste of my time, but I’m going to drive up there because you just never know what you’re going to see,’” Van Zant said. “(Late West Virginia University baseball coach) Dale Ramsburg would always tell me, ‘You’re never going to find players by sitting in the office.’”
So Van Zant hopped in his car and drove two hours up to Steubenville to see the game. As it turned out, Walter, the guy he saw during workouts, was the starting pitcher for West Virginia.
“He goes out in the first inning under the lights with a big crowd there and he is nearly touching 90 on the gun,” said Van Zant. “I’m looking around to see if there are any other D-I coaches around (of course there aren’t). We talked to him after the game and now he’s playing for us. We were the only school that recruited him. That’s one story out of a hundred of what our guys have been able to do to find players.”
Players - it always comes back to players whenever you talk to Van Zant, now just one victory shy of 500 for his West Virginia coaching career (when he gets No. 500 he will become only the fourth coach with 500 career wins at WVU - the other three being Ramsburg, volleyball coach Veronica Hammersmith and recently retired gymnastics Linda Burdette).
Van Zant’s single focus is getting the best players he can to play for the West Virginia Mountaineers. He’s coaching a sport that’s imperfect, its injustices seemingly harsher on coaches in this part of the country than in other parts, but he refuses to even acknowledge them. Why waste time worrying about things he doesn’t have or can’t control? It’s better to try and make lemonade out of lemon juice, he reasons.
“When we go into some fancy stadium I tell the guys, ‘That isn’t going to help them win - all that concrete and those chair-back seats aren’t going to help them stop a ball or hit a ball hard,’” Van Zant said.
Van Zant, his current assistant coach Pat Sherald, and former assistants Bruce Cameron and Doug Little, never flinched when those big schools frequently going to Omaha were recruiting the same players they were chasing at the national showcases. They may have swung and missed more often than not, but they always got back into the box and kept swinging.
“We need the same players here that Tennessee or Clemson recruits,” Van Zant explained. “If we go to the showcase and it’s the best players there, those are the guys we recruit. Now, if we can’t get them then we just can’t get them. The thing that we have to do sometimes is find guys that are off the radar screens who are just as good as the big, high-profile kids – the guy who is on the big buffet platter for everybody to see.
“We’ve got to go out there and beat the bushes to find the kid who, instead of being at the big showcase, is maybe at football practice,” Van Zant said.
Van Zant listed three players on his current roster who fall into that category: pitchers Harrison Musgrave and Josh Harlow, and shortstop Grant Buckner. All three, incidentally, are from West Virginia. Nobody recruits the home state harder than Van Zant. There are currently 11 Mountain State natives on this year’s roster.
“We have to get players who want to come to West Virginia that have pride in putting on that uniform,” he explained. “We’re not going to consistently get a kid out of Michigan that 20 other schools are recruiting. We’ve been fortunate to get some pretty good in-state players, and I think West Virginia is a little underrated for the baseball talent that we produce. We just don’t have that many people, but look each year and see how many Division I baseball players our state produces compared to football and basketball?”
The list of state natives includes high-major players such as former first-round draft pick Chris Enochs and Jedd Gyorko, last year’s Brooks Wallace Award winner as college baseball’s top shortstop and a second round pick of the San Diego Padres who is now moving up through their minor league system. Enochs and Gyorko could have played for anybody in the country but they chose WVU.
“To me it doesn’t make sense to recruit an athlete halfway across the country and miss a kid in your next state,” explained Van Zant, a Williamson, W.Va. native. “In baseball we’re a sport where the kids don’t get full scholarships and a lot of times the families are not willing to send their kids five states away to get a 25-percent scholarship and then see him sit on the bench.
“The problem you have in Division I baseball is very few high school kids are ready to come in and play, so there is going to be developmental time just like in the big leagues. Kids that get drafted right away don’t go to the major league roster - they need developmental time,” he said.
Player development is something Van Zant and his coaches take great pride in. Listed on the first page of Van Zant’s biography in the baseball media guide in reversed-out type are the number of All-American players (six), all-conference players (52) and professional players (49) that his baseball program has produced so far.
“We have our program set up to where if you come here and you work hard you’re going to have a chance to move on and play professionally,” he said. “We show them the track record of the guys that come here. All of the players who have moved on and played professionally, they have earned that and done that themselves; they have developed themselves within the program. If they listen to us and work hard then they are going to have a chance.”
Van Zant was a hard-working player for Ramsburg in the early 1980s, playing during an era when 30-game schedules were the norm for northeastern schools. The aluminum bat had just been introduced to the game to cut down on costs, and the southern teams were even more dominant than they are today.
There were years in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Ramsburg was even lucky to piece together a 20-game schedule. Ramsburg, who died of cancer in the fall of 1994, took over the Mountaineer baseball program from Hall of Fame coach Steve Harrick in 1968. Van Zant can remember like it was yesterday seeing Ramsburg in his car dragging the infield before practice.
“They came in and told him they were going to build the Coliseum on top of the baseball field, so he played (home games) at St. Francis High School for his first few years,” said Van Zant. “Then all through the 70s he was looking at a 36-team NCAA tournament and West Virginia was playing as an independent.
“The southern teams were playing 80-90 games and West Virginia was lucky to play 30 – not only that, but there was no conference, so we had no access to the national tournament. How are you going to recruit players? Coach Ramsburg was severely underfunded with a way below average facility in the 70s and he didn’t have the money to play mid-week games against Division I teams like Maryland and Penn State. That’s why they had to play Fairmont State, Cal (Pa.), West Liberty and schools like that. It was a different era.”
In 1982, Van Zant was a third baseman on one of the best WVU teams of that period, the Mountaineers upsetting Rutgers to win the Eastern Eight championship and coming within two games of reaching the College World Series.
When he was still alive, Ramsburg used to sit in his office with his feet propped up on his desk, a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth, and tell the story about how Van Zant turned a key double play late in the game to end a Scarlet Knights rally and help the Mountaineers win the Eastern Eight tournament. The way the Rammer would embellish it, depending up who was in the room listening, made it sound like Brooks Robinson robbing Johnny Bench’s smash down the third base line in the 1970 World Series.
Ramsburg took two other teams to the NCAAs (1985 and 1987) in the 80s, and led another one to the national tournament during his final season in 1994. By then, Van Zant had returned to West Virginia as Ramsburg’s top assistant coach after spending a few years with Jack Stallings at Georgia Southern, giving up a lucrative job at Ford because baseball was too much in his blood. Van Zant was the logical choice to replace Ramsburg for the 1995 season.
“You learn the game from the people that you play for and coached under, and by far the three that I learned the most from were my dad (Jim Van Zant), Dale Ramsburg and Jack Stallings. I played for my dad, I played for Coach Ramsburg and I coached under Ramsburg and Stallings,” said Van Zant.
The one thing all three taught him was the importance of coaching the players that you have.
“You can have a system and it would be wonderful if you could go out and pick exactly who you want to play for you, but you’re way better off if you can adapt your strategy and how you go about things based on your personnel,” Van Zant explained. “One thing my dad always told me was to try to find something that a kid can do to help you win. You can dwell on the negatives – a kid can’t do this or do that, but everybody on your team can help you do something to win, and you have to try and figure out what they can do to help you win.”
Van Zant’s 17 seasons at West Virginia have seen its ups and downs. His first year in 1995 the team finished 14 games below .500 and didn’t qualify for the Atlantic 10 tournament. Then a year after that, playing in the much stronger Big East, West Virginia won the regular season title on the last week of the regular season and ended up capturing the conference tournament.
West Virginia had to win two out of three against Connecticut on the last weekend just to get into the tournament – that’s how close the league race was that year.
“(Connecticut) had the tying run on second base and the winning run was at the plate when we got a rain delay,” Van Zant recalled.
During the rain delay, which ended up lasting 45 minutes, assistant coach Jon Szynal convinced Van Zant to intentionally walk Connecticut’s best hitter (a left hander) to put the winning run on first base.
“I said, ‘Szynal, are you nuts? You want to put the winning run on base?” Van Zant laughed. “He said yes, even though they had another good kid hitting behind the guy. But that guy hit right handed and we had a right hander on the mound (Rodney Allen) who had a great slider and he was able to get him out, and we made the tournament.”
West Virginia encountered even more good fortune in the Big East tournament. Despite having a deep pitching rotation that included three pro arms (the No. 5 starter that year was Olympian Jeremy Cummings), Van Zant is not sure his team would have won the tournament if a rainout hadn’t occurred on the second day. That allowed him to bring back Enochs in relief for the championship game against Notre Dame.
“Every team that wins has to have some good fortune,” Van Zant said. “But if you have really good players you tend to have more good fortune.”
Even after winning the conference tournament in just his second season as head coach, Van Zant never had any illusions of grandeur playing in the Big East.
“I remember sitting on the bus ride from the hotel to the ballpark telling Doug Little that we needed to get this one because winning Big East championships are going to be very difficult,” Van Zant said.
His program hasn’t won one since. In fact, all 12 of West Virginia’s NCAA tournament appearances in baseball have come as a result of winning conference championships; the school has never received an at-large bid. Perhaps Van Zant’s best team since 1996 was the 2003 squad that won 36 games and was knocked out of the Big East tournament in the semifinals by Rutgers, 8-7.
“We had the 36th-best RPI and we just got caught up in the political fallout of the ACC taking the Big East teams,” Van Zant said. “We should have been in that year.”
His ‘06 squad won 36 games, including a Big East tournament opening-round victory against St. John’s, and the 2008 and 2009 clubs won a combined 72 games and made it back to postseason play. And last year, West Virginia once again reached the Big East tournament despite finishing three games under .500. Van Zant does admit feeling some disappointment that his program hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament more often.
“I wish up to this point that we had more Big East championships,” he said. “I’d like to win even more games. We’ve won a lot of games, but you ultimately want to win even more.”
So far this year, West Virginia is off to an 8-4 start in conference play (22-15 overall heading into the Seton Hall series) with five of the top eight pitchers on Van Zant’s staff being freshmen. If those guys can remain healthy and continue to improve, he sees good things on the horizon for the baseball program.
“Those guys have to come back and have to stay healthy and get better than they are right now,” he said. “And we have to add to it.”
Again, it always comes back to the players.
Van Zant was reminded once more the importance of having good players when his team was at Louisville earlier this year in its beautiful, brand new ballpark. The video board in the outfield registered the radar gun readings for the pitchers, and all eight guys Louisville brought into the game that weekend threw harder than 90 mph.
The memory of those strong-armed Louisville pitchers will surely keep Greg Van Zant from spending too many quiet nights with the family this summer, that’s for sure. The voice inside his head simply won’t allow it.
Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik
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