Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

March 26, 2014

Mercer County baseball teams a threat for state success

BLUEFIELD — When Josh Wilburn was hired as baseball coach at Princeton in 2010, little was expected of the Tigers.

At least from those outside the program.

Wilburn knew. The pieces were in place for success.

“I think there are a lot of things and I don’t just put it all on just coaching because every coach has got to have talented kids to win,” said Wilburn, who played college baseball at Concord. “When I came in 2010 I knew I would have a talented team.

“I didn’t know a whole lot about the talent in Princeton because I am not from this area.”

He learned pretty quick. So has everyone else around the state, and it’s not just the Tigers.

Princeton (AAA) and Wyoming East (AA) won it all in 2012. Two years earlier, James Monroe reached the AA state finals, while the Tigers lost in the state semifinals. Just last season PikeView was an eighth inning infield single at Independence from winding up in Charleston.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when baseball teams in southern West Virginia, and especially in the immediate area, weren’t considered serious threats at the state level.

In fact, they were no threats at all. Those days are effectively over.

“The talent is here in Mercer County and in our area,” Wilburn said. “I was tickled to death for ‘Chief’, Coach (Ron) Mayhew over at Wyoming East when he was able to win the championship in 2012.”

Those championships won by Princeton and Wyoming East were the first from the immediate area since Peterstown (A) and Independence (AA) both claimed crowns in 1990. Peterstown actually won consecutive titles, also winning in 1989.

Princeton helped end that drought 22 years later, defeating powerful Nitro and Korey Dunbar, who is currently playing at North Carolina, in 2012.

“That is what we talked about. It is nice to bring that type of success to the southern part of the state, knowing that we really don’t get that much credit down here,” Wilburn said. “I think people are starting to take notice.”

Wilburn should know. There was a time when Princeton had no trouble finding teams to fill the schedule. Not anymore.

The same can be said for Josh Wyatt at PikeView and Bluefield’s Justin Gilbert, both of whom have developed competitive programs as well. Ditto for Jimmy Redmond, who has done much the same at Montcalm.

“Before it was very easy to get conference games, now it seems like it is a little tougher to call schools and play,” Wilburn said. “A lot of it has to do with the travel, but a lot is we are starting to become more competitive.

“Coach Wyatt at PikeView and Justin over at Bluefield are doing a great job with their programs. I feel like our sport in general in the southern part is starting to get much better and more competitive.”

Wilburn actually attended a few games at Princeton prior to taking the job in 2010. He liked what he saw, even if those who hired him weren’t so sure.

“Actually I came and watched a game or two,” Wilburn said. “I was familiar with a few of the kids and when I got the job I was told it was going to be a struggle.

“I knew what we needed to do was do the right things, put the kids in the position that would fit them best, and give us the best opportunity to compete.”

It worked. Princeton just happened to have a collection of athletes who had won the West Virginia Senior League title only a few years before. They became Tigers and just kept on winning.

It may have just been the right combination of talent and coaching converging at the same time.

“We just tried to teach clean baseball, tried to teach the kids to compete and don’t worry about who they are playing and give them confidence that on any given day that we can compete with the best in the state,” Wilburn said. “I think it really comes down that we came in and we taught them the way the game should be played the best that we can with the knowledge that we have been given through college baseball.”

That first season started slow, but the Tigers surprised many observers, joining James Monroe in the state tournament. While the Mavericks advanced to the Class AA finals, losing to Braxton County, Princeton fell to Nitro, but by just one run and were confident in a return.

“It took us a little while to turn things around, I believe we were 0-7 our first seven games in 2010, but we were able to get it turned around,” Wilburn said. “We started to compete and by the end of the year we were in a position where we playing pretty good baseball and we were able to make it to the state final four that first year.”

Princeton expected to back in 2011, but fell twice to Greenbrier East in the sectionals. They remembered, and certainly made amends in 2012.

“We rebounded 2012 with all those kids being seniors and they knew exactly what it was going to take to get there and they had a chip on their shoulder that they had beat themselves in 2011,” Wilburn said. “That was our goal the whole year was to get back and give ourselves an opportunity to win it, and they did just that.”

Despite losing all five players who are now playing college baseball and another who is playing college golf, Wilburn felt the Tigers had the chance to defend the title. They won the sectional crown, but fell to Woodrow Wilson by a run in the regional semifinals.

“In 2013 I felt like mentally we broke down, and this year we are coming back with a little chip on our shoulder,” Wilburn said. “Looking at the 2013 season and 2011 season, the two teams that beat us went on to the state final four, that could have been us.”

“We were very capable of beating both of those teams, we just didn’t play our best baseball on those days.”

Princeton hasn’t just produced on the field, winning at least 81 games, three sectional titles and a state championship in the last four years, but have also developed eight college players in the last two seasons alone.

Wilburn and his assistants, James Stehlin, Chris Presley and Gareth Mills, understand what it takes to play on the college level.

“Over the last four or five years, we take a lot of pride of being able to say we are sending these kids on to the next level,” Wilburn said. “At least since I have here since 2010 we have had multiple kids that have went on to play college baseball.

“I think it is a testament to the work we are putting in and our philosophy on baseball and the conference we are playing in, making the kids be a little bit more competitive.”

Not only is the Mountain State Athletic Conference full of talented baseball teams, but the Tigers also load the schedule with other quality competition, not only participating in the Coppinger Invitational, but the Tigers will spend the entire spring break week in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

There is talk of a change in the school calendar, but Wilburn is hoping to save a trip that has been a big boost to the Princeton program.

“It has been a success for our program, I hope the community sees that...,” Wilburn said. “I hope the teachers vote that we keep our whole spring break so we can continue this trip because it has been a huge success for our program.”

Once again, it’s not just the Tigers. Other Mercer County schools have been making the same trip each spring, and it has also paid off for them.

“Bluefield has been going down, PikeView has been going down, we have been going down since 2010, and we have been putting our kids in more of a  tournament style atmosphere with more at stake,” Wilburn said. “Our program has begun to grow and has enjoyed a lot of success.

“I think the proof is kind of in the pudding. I not all about coaching, it is playing and putting our kids out there and getting them some experience.”

Apparently, baseball teams in Mercer County are doing something right.

“We are just trying to teach them the things that we have kind of experienced over our career and tried to give them the best situation to win baseball games and get better,” Wilburn said. “It has worked for us over the years. We have won a lot of baseball games.

“If I am not mistaken, I think we are just under 30 wins shy of winning 100 baseball games since 2010 so we have come a long way.”

—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at bwoodson@bdtonline.com / Twitter @bdtwoodson.

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