PITTSBURGH - It was a win-win-win for everybody involved in Wednesday night’s college baseball game played at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
It was a win, of course, for West Virginia and a win for the Pirates, but it was also a win for Penn State getting to play a college baseball game in Pittsburgh - an important city for the Nittany Lions.
West Virginia coach Randy Mazey gives instructions during Wednesday night's game against Penn State at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo.
An announced crowd of 2,472 watched the game, which is remarkable considering the limited amount of time the two schools had to promote the matchup and the fact that the Pittsburgh Penguins were playing the Washington Capitals in a second-round playoff game the same evening.
Additionally, Penn State had a previously scheduled caravan stop in Pittsburgh that it couldn’t cancel.
The Pirates did a fantastic job with game operations, including bringing out the Pirate Parrot and running their popular pierogi race in the middle of the fourth inning.
The contest was also well played on both sides, lasting less than three hours.
Easily the best moment of the night occurred after the seventh inning stretch and the playing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” when “Sweet Caroline” came over the public address system.
After observing their Mountaineer counterparts make several double-fisted trips to the concession stand throughout the evening, the Nittany Lion faithful watched with considerable amusement as the West Virginians seated across the field from them injected their unique twist to a Neil Diamond song that somehow got hijacked by the Pitt Panthers.
For one brief moment until Diamond’s tender ode to JFK’s daughter, Caroline, was abruptly faded down, two eternal opponents were joined together in unison against a common foe.
It almost looked like Hands Across America.
It's true, the dreaded Pittsburgh Panthers can bring any fan base together!
And now, here are this week’s Mountaineer sports notes …
* A recent tweet by ESPN college basketball expert Fran Fraschilla caught my eye. Earlier this week, the knowledgeable former coach tweeted this about Bob Huggins’ West Virginia Mountaineers, “I’m in the minority, but I think WVU will even be better next season. Good nucleus back, rising sophs ready to explode & solid recruiting class.”
The caveat, of course, is guard Jevon Carter
returning for his senior season, but I agree with Fraschilla and double down by adding we could be looking at Huggins’ best Mountaineer team since the Final Four season in 2010.
Huggs has size, depth, rebounders, ball handlers, shooters, scorers, defenders and a legitimate rim protector in sophomore Sagaba Kontate.
To me, the 6-foot-8-inch, 250-pound Kontate is the one player on West Virginia’s roster with the most room for growth. I could easily see him developing into a 10-and-10 guy as early as next season after spending a year in Dr. Huggins’ laboratory.
What some people forget is Huggins’ best-ever player - Kenyon Martin - was a developmental guy, too, not a ready-made star.
Martin went from averaging 2.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per game during his freshman season at Cincinnati in 1997 to his senior year in 2000 when he averaged 18.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game as college basketball’s player of the year.
Now, this is not to suggest that Konate is going to be the next Kenyon Martin, but rather to demonstrate the amount of growth a player who spends four years with Bob Huggins can make when he buys into what Huggins is teaching him.
And Konate possesses some of those God-given gifts that Huggins has been so good at tapping into with some of his most talented players through the years.
* As we continue to flip the calendar toward summer, this is the time of year when sports reporting typically morphs into opinion reporting.
Conference expansion always seems to be click bait, as are those ubiquitous football and basketball recruiting rankings that we always see.
Another time-tested way to generate springtime page views is by creating lists. One that did catch my attention was Athlon’s ranking of the top mascots in the Big 12.
No. 1 was none other than the West Virginia Mountaineer! Here is what Athlon had to say about a WVU tradition dating back to 1927, “Kudos to West Virginia for not caving in to what appears to be national pressure to make everything in college athletics more family friendly. I love the Davy Crockett-looking, gun-toting bearded maniac that represents Mountaineer sports. One of the best things about him is, unlike at Notre Dame and Florida State, there is no extra grooming or makeup required. You can literally just pluck any one of the thousands of West Virginia students roaming the campus with an out-of-control beard out of the crowd and make him the mascot - as long as the big beard trend keeps going.”
One thing this writer failed to mention is that the Mountaineer’s beard is optional - Natalie Tennant proved that in 1990, and Rebecca Durst reaffirmed it in 2009.
But I do agree, we’ve not only got the best mascot in the Big 12, but in all college sports as well!
* More click bait, this one coming recently from our friend Jake Trotter of ESPN.com. Trotter’s recent post-spring Big 12 quarterback rankings has West Virginia No. 3 in the conference behind Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
Of course, Oklahoma’s quarterback position is in great hands with Heisman Trophy candidate Baker Mayfield manning the huddle, and Oklahoma State is also in terrific shape with Mason Rudolph returning for his senior season in 2017.
But jumping up to No. 3 is West Virginia with its new quarterback Will Grier
under center. The Mountaineers won 10 games last season with Skyler Howard quarterbacking the team, so the former Florida transfer stepping in for Howard is important in terms of maintaining the momentum established last year.
Grier certainly looked the part during the spring game when he completed 12 of 18 passes for 202 yards in a slightly more than one half of play.
Quarterbacks get a lot of credit when things go right and a lot of the blame when things go wrong, but there is no questioning the value a dynamic quarterback can provide to a football team.
Just take a look at TCU, which won 23 games during the 2014-15 seasons when Trevon Boykin was under center.
The year before Boykin was moved to quarterback, in 2013, TCU was 4-8.
The year after Boykin left the program in 2016, the Horned Frogs dipped below .500 once again at 6-7.
Yes, high-caliber quarterbacks can make a big difference.
We’ve also seen that recently at West Virginia, too, beginning with Big East player of the year Rasheed Marshall in 2004 and continuing with Pat White, Jarrett Brown and Geno Smith - the best run of quarterbacks the Mountaineers have had in their history.
Hopefully, WVU is in the midst of another run of top-shelf quarterbacks with Grier now about ready to go.
This is what Sherman had to say about Dana Holgorsen’s ball carriers, “One of the best groups in the Big 12, regardless of position. The Mountaineers feature Justin Crawford
, who ranked sixth nationally last year with a per-carry rushing average of 7.3 yards, Kennedy McKoy
and Martell Pettaway
. The latter duo figure only to improve after showing flashes last year as true freshmen. Freshman Tevin Bush
, a jitterbug at 5-foot-5 and 168 pounds, figures to find a role, too, in his bid to emulate former WVU star Tavon Austin.”
* Don’t discount the significance of West Virginia’s latest APR numbers released on Wednesday. It is a major, major deal and something of which Mountaineer fans from Weirton to Welch, Martinsburg to Matewan, and all points in between can be very proud.
Next week, I will go into greater detail why it’s such a big deal for West Virginia University athletics.
* My congratulations to Cameron Lyons, son of WVU Director of Athletics Shane Lyons, who recently announced his plans to attend Akron University as an invited walk-on for the football team. Lyons was a linebacker at Morgantown High last fall.
Another Akron player with a WVU tie is Parkersburg punter Kyle Foster, the son of former Mountaineer Athletic Club director Rex Foster.
Of course, the Zips are coached by West Virginia University alum and former Mountaineer player Terry Bowden.
* Retired West Virginia University wrestling coach Craig Turnbull was recently inducted into the Clarion University Sports Hall of Fame on May 5.
Turnbull, who wrestled at Clarion from 1971-74, was one of seven people inducted last Friday evening.
Turnbull coached West Virginia University’s wrestling program from 1979-2014, producing five national champions, 26 All-Americans and numerous top-20 finishes at NCAA nationals.
Previously, Turnbull was inducted into the Eastern Wrestling League Hall of Fame. He was a four-time EWL coach of the year and his Mountaineer teams captured six EWL titles.
* Former West Virginia University fullback Brian Moore, a member of Don Nehlen’s 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1992 Mountaineer teams, was recently named Athletic Director of the Year for Prince George’s County.
Moore is director of athletics at Parkdale High in Riverdale, Maryland.
* Kyle Cooper, once a student manager for John Beilein’s West Virginia University men’s basketball program, was recently named head women’s basketball coach at West Liberty, replacing former longtime coach Lynn Ullom, who stepped aside to become West Liberty’s new athletic director.
Cooper served four seasons under Ullom at West Liberty, including his most recent role as associate head coach and recruiting coordinator.
At WVU, Cooper also worked for Mike Carey’s Mountaineer women’s program as head student manager and later graduate assistant coach.
“I am forever grateful to Coach Carey for pulling me to the women’s side of basketball and his continued support and guidance,” Cooper said.
Following WVU, Cooper also had stops at Ohio University and Wheeling Jesuit before joining West Liberty’s staff in 2013.
* Another former WVU student manager, Wesley Brooks, also continues to climb the coaching ladder in women’s basketball.
Earlier this week, Brooks was named assistant coach on Kim Barnes Arico’s staff at Michigan, replacing Megan Duffy, who left Michigan to become head coach at Miami University.
Brooks got his start in the coaching profession at West Virginia, working as a graduate assistant coach for two seasons on the women’s side before being promoted to director of basketball operations in 2007.
Brooks has also coached at Robert Morris, Texas Southern, North Texas and, most recently, Utah, before landing his latest job at Michigan.
* And finally, it’s becoming pretty clear former West Virginia University shortstop Jedd Gyorko has found a home in St. Louis, and Cardinals fans are really starting to get behind him.
Last year - his first in St. Louis - Gyorko socked 30 home runs in just 128 games and so far this season he is off to a torrid start, hitting .351 with six home runs and 17 RBI through Wednesday. During Tuesday night’s 6-5 come-from-behind victory over Miami, Gyorko delivered a clutch, two-run single in the eighth inning to tie the game at five and Wednesday, he banged out three hits and knocked in two more in another Cardinals come-from-behind win.
Right now, Gyorko might be St. Louis’ most valuable player because of his power, versatility being able to play multiple infield positions and his financial flexibility (Gyorko’s former team San Diego is paying $2 million of his contract this season, $2.5 million in 2018 and $3 million in 2019).
Jedd’s biggest paycheck comes in 2019 when he is slated to earn $13 million, still a bargain for a player with his power and maneuverability.
“Gyorko can turn on a fastball like you turn on a kitchen light, whisking the bat through the zone like a sharp shooter and reminding the pitcher that any pitch inner waist high will be lasted into the seats,” KSDK columnist Dan Buffa wrote.
He concluded with this, “Gyorko’s power has found the consistency it lacked in San Diego, and there’s a possibility that his bat can co-exist with (Kolton) Wong’s abilities in the same lineup.”
To all WVU graduates walking today, congratulations and best of luck!
Have a great weekend!