By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
What’s past is past when it’s tournament time — even if the recent past is a stretch in which your baseball team has averaged more than 14 runs per game.
Concord University baseball coach Andrew Wright has been preaching that message in the past few days, leading up to this morning’s first-round WVIAC baseball tournament game with West Liberty at Epling Stadium in Beckley.
“I explained to our team yesterday,” he said on Tuesday, “that this is a brand new season. Anything that we have done up to this point does not matter. It’s the same speech I give them in 2011 and the same one I gave them in 2012.”
“It’s all about winning tomorrow. That’s essentially it. We’ve got one game to focus on, and that’s going to be our focus.”
“Hopefully, we’re going to score some runs.”
In the last five games of the regular season, the Mountain Lions scored an average of 14.6 runs per contest. Concord enters the tournament on a four-game winning streak.
Wright cautioned, “We don’t show up and they say, ‘Well, you’ve been scoring a bunch of runs lately, so here you go, here’s 14 runs.’ You’ve got to earn it, and our guys have to understand that they have to take that kind of mindset up with them to the plate.”
“You’ve got to create your own situations.”
The Concord offense has been good at that. The team has crafted the top batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage in the West Virginia Conference.
Joey Miller is tied for first in the league with 13 home runs. Ryan Johnston has scored 66 times, tops in the conference. Jacob Mays has been hit by pitches a whopping 31 times and has drawn 25 walks.
Miller, Johnston and Devin Smith are the conference’s top three leaders in runs batted in.
Wright said, “Those three are the product of the other six guys getting on base, really. You can’t drive in runs if nobody’s on base in front of you ... .”
“You look at RBIs, that’s a team stat more than it is an individual stat — not to take anything away from those three, because they’ve done an excellent job of hitting with runners in scoring position.”
The coach said, “I think the biggest thing that we have done is we have identified, in the recruiting process, people with the ability to hit. Then, when you give them a very simple approach to employ, they go out and it just happens.”
“The good thing about it is, 1 through 9 in our lineup, different people might be good at different things, but they’re all pretty good at one part of the game or another.”
Mays’ work to get on base a prime example.
Wright said, “He’s not worried about his offensive numbers as much as he’s worried about just getting on base to make sure that our team can score runs.”
“His on-base percentage is through the roof. Even when he was struggling early on, and his average was below .300, his on-base percentage was still over .500.”
“I’m not worried about the attractive numbers, like doubles and home runs and stuff like that. I’m more worried about how are we going to find ways to get guys on first base, and how are they going to get moved over and then how are we going to score them.”
He recalled, “When I talked to Joey (Miller) in the recruiting process, it was about finding somebody we could put in the middle of the order that would change the way you pitch to everybody else.”
“Knowing that with one swing, and we’ve got two or three guys on base, that’s going to do some damage on the scoreboard. So I think it changes the way people approach him, it changes the way people pitch to people in front of him, and all down the line. I think that’s where you see the offensive production come from.”
The Athenians’ pitching has improved with age, Wright said. Two years ago, he said, “We were literally like, ‘Here’s the ball, I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ ”
Ryan Weatherholtz leads the pitching staff with a 3.32 ERA and a 5-1 win-loss record.
“He goes out and competes and gives you a chance to win,” Wright said. “Same thing with Kevin Mack.”
This season’s corps has been bolstered by the addition of Chris Baker, Tim Leather and Tyler Coyle, “and getting Devin Smith back and healthy,” Wright said. “Will Zuspan is still as good as any reliever in the conference — same thing with Dustin Nuckels.”
“I think with the experience that we have, the age that we have, and we have an enhanced skill set because of the ability some of these newcomers have brought in, we’ve been able to kind of compliment different roles.”
“We’ve almost created different roles for people.”
The team’s 32-18 record this year creates a different mindset from the previous two campaigns, in which Concord had to scramble for late wins to qualify for the postseason.
“We had to play with emotion the last couple of years when our back was against the wall,” Wright said. “I want our guys to understand that even though the sense of urgency isn’t necessarily there — from the sense of ‘if we don’t win, we’re not in’ — I want that sense of urgency to still be there to win baseball games, because that’s what put us in this position to begin with.”
“Our guys understand that when they go out and play good, clean baseball, that we win baseball games.”
“We dropped some games late that we probably shouldn’t have, where we kind of came out flat. I think if we, hopefully, use that as some motivation to play better and more focused baseball, that will help us more than it’ll hurt us.”
He also said that the team takes care of its academic commitments. One of his players, Justin Willard, was recently named marketing scholar of the year in the Concord business division.
“Our GPA (grade point average) from my first fall ’til now has gone up almost a quarter of a point — and that’s with increasing the roster, even, by 15 people,” he said. “It’s something that our guys work very hard on. One of the good things we have here is just outstanding academic support.”
“That’s one of the things it takes to be a baseball player in this program, is caring about your academics. You get the privilege to play baseball here because you do everything (required) off the field as well.”
Concord has become a perennial entrant in the WVIAC tournament, making the field every year since 1999. Wright said that legacy is “one that we’re proud of here, and that’s why we hold ourselves to such a high standard.”
Wright played for the Maroon and Gray for four years, served several seasons as an assistant coach, and has been in charge of the program since 2011 — when CU won the tournament championship.
In this year’s field, he said there are no easy opponents.
“I think if you look at all eight of the teams, the eight teams can beat you in probably eight different ways,” he said. “They stick to their own niche, or whatever you want to call it.”
“What we talk to our guys about is, don’t worry about what they’re doing. We’re going to make sure that we’re doing everything on our side to control the game and not let them control the game.”
“If we go out and pitch the way I know we’re capable of, and be very aggressive on the offensive side of it, and we just go out and play Concord baseball, I think we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”
He also said he loves bringing his team to Linda K. Epling Stadium.
“Tim Epling’s done a great job for baseball in southern West Virginia, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for that, either,” Wright said.
“It’s built for us,” he said about the facility. “It’s got very generic dimensions, which is good. It’s got a lot of foul territory — where, if you’re very athletic, like we are, you get an opportunity to pick up maybe two or three more outs throughout the course of a game.”
The artificial turf is “a great equalizer,” he said. “Our guys spent some time yesterday on our turf football field, taking some ground balls. We practice quite a bit, actually, over the course of the year, on turf. It’s just a true hop. You do what you can to stop the ball and throw it to the next guy.”
This is the final baseball tournament of the WVIAC, which is slated to go out of existence in June. But Wright is writing a different history.
He said, “Certainly, it’s nice, because if we aren’t playing in Beckley this week, then it’s breaking a pretty long streak of getting to the playoffs. That, to me, is more important than the sentimental value of it being the last tournament championship.”
“There have been a lot of good things in this league. In some ways I’m sad that we’re moving on, but in a lot of ways, I’m excited about what the new conference might bring.
“But that’s neither here nor there. Tomorrow, we’ve got to win a game against West Lib.”
— Contact Tom Bone at