By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
How big was it for Concord to win the West Virginia Conference baseball championship last week in Beckley?
So big, if they had lost, the Mountain Lions would have been done.
“Our backs were against the wall as far as making it to a regional because we had to win it in order to go to a regional,” Concord head coach Andrew Wright said. “My hats off to them because they just went out and played like they did have something to lose.”
What did Concord — which won four games by a combined score of 27-9 — get for a 36-18 record and the final WVIAC baseball championship in a league that was founded in 1924? A sixth seed — out of six teams — in the Atlantic Region.
“It was nice, it was the last trophy to be given out in the conference,” Wright said. “I think that was a big deal, it was a lot of good publicity for our program within this conference and our athletic department is off the charts. I think for us to do that certainly means something to me.”
While the Mountain Lions earned the title on the field, that seeding may have come because Concord was 0-6 against Atlantic Regional tournament foes this season, but it still left Wright — and perhaps the soon-to-be extinct WVIAC — looking for respect.
Seton Hill was the only other WVIAC team to receive a regional bid.
“I don’t know, there have been some surprises with the way the regional committee chose to make the decisions they made, but that is out of my hands,” Wright said. “I think we are still not getting the respect that we deserve and I don’t know if that is something that I am doing or not doing.
“We are going to keep plugging away and keep doing our thing. Hopefully in years to come we will be getting the respect we feel like we deserve.”
How better to earn that respect than to keep winning baseball games? Concord, which is 1-8 in four previous regional appearances, last reached this point in 2011, and the Mountain Lions won a game, the first regional win in school history.
“(That) was is a big deal to me because it was kind of a monkey off our backs,” Wright said. “We had been to regionals three times before that and have been two-and-out and we are going home.
“I think our guys believe it much more now than they did two years ago that we can go up there and win this thing.”
Concord, which will play top-seeded Millersville today, lost to those same Marauders 3-1 in 2011 before rebounding to beat Winston-Salem State. That was two years ago, and Wright likes the change in expectations from his Mountain Lions.
“It is significantly different because I think we expect this a little bit more, if we are not playing for regionals in May, then I personally consider it a failure, I really do,” Wright said. “We hold ourselves to a pretty high standard. You look at it, we expect to go out and win a bunch of games and put ourselves in position to play for a regional.”
Concord, which has won eight games in a row, is one of three teams to get automatic bids into the Atlantic Regional, joining fellow conference champions Winston-Salem State (CIAA) and No. 5 East Stroudsburg (PSAC). The at-large teams include Millersville (PSAC), Seton Hill and Shippensburg, which hasn’t played since May 3, earning a fourth seed despite not qualifying for the PSAC tournament.
They did, however, beat Concord three times early in the season. The Lions also lost twice to Seton Hill and once to Winston-Salem State.
Millersville is similar to many of the 28 at-large selections in the 48-team field, which will culminate with the eight-team NCAA Division II National Championships a week later in Cary, N.C.
The Marauders won regional titles in 2001 and 1998.
“You are going to run into some teams that can pitch because the teams that are there by at-large bids can pitch and they prove it over the course of time,” Wright said. “I think that is going to be the key, just making sure we go out there and just play fundamental baseball and see what happens.”
The Marauders might not have the offense that Concord does, but their pitching is among the nation’s best, led by Chris Murphy, who is a semifinalist for national player of the year.
Yet, Wright isn’t sure the Lions will see either Murphy (12-1, 2.08) or another stellar hurler, Tim Mayza (10-3, 1.28), on the mound.
“You can’t look past anything, they have got two guys and I am not even sure they are going to pitch truthfully,” Wright said. “I have got a pretty good idea of who they are going to pitch, but we will show up and find out who it is and figure out a way to beat them.”
Concord, along with WVIAC foe Seton Hill, bring big bats to the event, with the Mountain Lions possessing punch throughout the lineup with a .360 team batting average, along with 49 home runs, and 547 runs, which is 148 more than Seton Hill, which was second in that category in the league.
Millersville has five players batting .322 or higher, led by Zach Stone (.409, 42 RBI, 48 runs). The top 12 batters for the Mountain Lions are hitting at least .302, led by Ryan Johnston (.405, 10 HR, 63 RBIs) and Joey Miller (.333, 13 HR, 68 RBI).
“We are going to run into other teams in the regional that if they are going to do any damage to you it is going to be in the top five hitters and they might have some defensive guys 6 through 9,” Wright said. “With us, all of our guys can hit and they can all be the ‘hero’ for the day. It will be interesting to see what happens.”
Hitting and pitching get the headlines, but defense is often just as important in big games. Concord has been solid with the gloves all season, and will get the advantage of playing on a turf field in Winston-Salem, much like they did when they won the WVIAC title in Beckley.
“We are playing on turf again which is kind of the great equalizer when you are looking at that,” Wright said. “The hops are going to be truer and stuff like that. If we will just go and let our athleticism just take over I think we are going to be in good shape.”
While the stakes are high for Mountain Lions, Wright won’t be putting any extra pressure on his team.
“We don’t psyche our guys out too much, at least I hope not,” Wright said. “We want our guys to show up like it is just another game and go out and play.”
—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org