Gene Stephenson delivered a simple message to his Wichita State team after a catatonic performance in an opening-round loss at the Missouri Valley tournament.
Grow up, Stephenson told his players, or go home.
“I told them the coaching staff still believed in them but that didn’t matter unless they believed in themselves,” Stephenson said. “It was all about growing up and being a man, assuming accountability and making it happen.
“The way they responded was fantastic. I’ve never seen better, and I think everyone on this club knew there was no way we were going to lose to Illinois State last night. You could just feel it.”
Saturday night’s 5-2 win over the top-seeded Redbirds completed the Shockers’ long road back through the losers’ bracket and earned Wichita State its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2009.
The Shockers (39-26) will learn Monday where they will head for regional competition when pairings and seeding are announced by the NCAA baseball committee. Then they’ll get back to the business of trying to extend a season that appeared ready to come to an end after they had lost to Southern Illinois 5-1 in the opening round of the tournament.
Stephenson was visibly upset after that game with his team’s lack of aggressiveness and competitiveness. Five days later, the veteran coach had no such complaints.
“We played with such intensity, especially on defense,” Stephenson said. “We were diving for balls all over the place. It was one fantastic play after another. Our pitching was good, but our defense was everywhere.”
Wichita State did not commit an error in the tournament, extending its streak of games without an error to nine. The Shockers gave up just 10 runs in the last five games and hit .351.
Wichita State started its way on the comeback trail by knocking Creighton out of the tournament. The Shockers then mauled Southern Illinois before posting two wins over Indiana State that left them the Bracket A representative in the title game.
On Saturday night, they rode a solid performance over seven innings by starter Cale Elam, some clutch hitting and, of course, errorless defense to their 18th tournament championship. Only one other time — in 2004 — had Wichita State lost its first game and still won the tournament.
“After we lost last Tuesday, we were faced with having to win five games in a row,” Stephenson said. “Our longest winning streak all season had been just four. Our guys played well and were focused on the here and now.
“We couldn’t think past any game — it was either do or be done. We had a lot of odds against us but these guys really pulled together.”
After they passed out the championship trophy and T-shirts, Stephenson gathered his players around him to try to put what they accomplished in perspective. This is his 36th season at Wichita State, the program he literally built from nothing into one of college baseball’s most consistent winners.
“I told them winning this one ranks right up there with any we’ve done because of the situation and the circumstances we faced,” Stephenson said. “I told them I’ve never been more proud of any of the teams I’ve coached because of what they accomplished and how they fought through adversity.”
The championship comes as uncertainty swirls around Stephenson and his future. His contract runs out after the 2014 season, and Wichita State hasn’t offered him an extension. That’s led to speculation that this could be the final season for the coach who ranks second in all-time Division I wins.
Athletic Director Eric Sexton has said only that Stephenson will be evaluated after the season.
Stephenson admits the speculation about his future has been rough on him but he refuses to let it seep into how he goes about business with his team.
“It has never been brought up or discussed, and it won’t be,” Stephenson said. “I would be less than honest if I said it didn’t bother me but I also know you can’t have things both ways. I can’t expect people to care about this program and then not to expect any backlash when things don’t go as expected.
“No one in this program is accustomed to some of the things that have happened to us over the past few seasons.”
This year’s NCAA tournament appearance will be Wichita State’s 28th but its first since 2009. The Shockers haven’t played in Omaha since 1996, when they made the last of their seven College World Series appearances. Stephenson’s 1989 team won the national championship.
Some folks in Wichita are convinced its time for a change, that things have slipped too far from the Shockers’ glory days. A Valley championship and another trip to the NCAA tournament could give Stephenson some ammunition to fire back at his critics.
Instead, he said as the team bus headed home on Sunday that he was glad for his players, especially seniors Johnny Coy and pitcher TJ McGreevy.
“They were almost the first seniors in the history of the program that hadn’t played in the NCAA tournament in any of their four years here,” he said. “This is strange territory for us, but I’m just glad they’ll get their chance.”
Contact the writer:
402-679-2298, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/PivOWH