Bradley hopes to keep UC baseball headed in right direction
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The University of Charleston baseball team's 2012 campaign began with tragedy and ended with triumph.
UC coach Tom Nozica, who had been with the team since 1969, died in October of 2011 after a short battle with cancer, leaving assistant Lee Bradley to take over the reins and try and get a bunch of players to turn their focus to the diamond.
The result was a 28-23 regular season and a 19-14 league mark that ended with UC in the West Virginia Conference tournament for the first time since 2004.
"Last year, the first thing it did is it proved how resilient they were," Bradley said of his players. "They were able to use some of the stuff that happened as a little motivation and to show some respect and all that stuff."
After last year's success, Bradley was kept on as the team's head coach and is now faced with the challenge of keeping the Golden Eagles moving in the right direction as the team opens its 2013 slate a week from today with a home doubleheader against California, Pa.
UC returns several key players from last year, including catcher Igor Molina, who hit .377 with six home runs and 37 RBIs in 2012, all team bests.
"I think [last season's success] is valuable," Bradley said. "Now the thing we're trying to do is change the expectation of this program and where we want to go and what we want to do. Now we've got to figure out how to get there.
"The big thing for us is that we're trying to build a program. You've got to crawl before you walk. Our first goal is we still want to make ourselves important in the conference setting. Once we start doing that on a yearly basis we can start talking about regionals and NCAA tournaments and that stuff."
While Charleston showed improvement last year, West Virginia State finished a disappointing 22-27 overall and 17-17 in the conference.
In fact, State's win total has dropped or stayed the same in each season since 2006, despite the fact that the Yellow Jackets claimed back-to-back WVC titles in 2007 and 2008.
It may look like gloom and doom on the surface, but consider the fact that State lost 10 players to injury last year and only graduated four seniors.
The result will be a team full of experience that coach Cal Bailey believes could be poised to make a major improvement this year.
"We're a year older, a year smarter and a year more mature," Bailey said. "We got frustrated pretty easily last year and I think they've got a better idea of what we're trying to accomplish now. We've got some good young guys coming in and some guys that stepped up that were in the middle of the pack last year that are going to be pretty good players."
Only two players that were in State's regular starting lineup last year are gone and the offense will be led by former Hurricane player Bill Smith, who was a first-team all-conference selection after hitting .419 with 34 RBIs last year.
Fellow former Redskin Noah Blackhurst and former Nitro player Andrew Pickering (.358 each last year) will provide some lineup support for Smith.
The veteran Jackets will open the season Monday with a home doubleheader against Pitt Johnstown. First pitch is scheduled for noon.
"The big thing is last year we had no depth," Bailey said. "The guys who played all the time didn't have anybody pushing them. It's a little different situation this year. If some of these young guys step up when someone falters, they'll get a chance to do the job."
Both Bailey and Bradley spoke briefly about the conference and in particular the last season of WVC baseball that is about to get under way. Both UC and State will be charter members when the 12-team Mountain East Conference begins play in 16 sports starting in the fall.
Bradley admitted that the final season of the WVC is something he has used for motivation already this year.
"We've thrown that out there," Bradley said. "The simple fact is that whoever gets the hardware last can keep it. I think it's a reasonable expectation for us. The biggest thing at our level is everybody around us is real comparable, the side that makes the difference is the mental aspect. We still have a bit of a chip on our shoulder and we feel like we have something to prove and I like that."
While Bailey is also hopeful his team, which has won the conference crown 13 times since 1959, can raise the trophy at the end of the year, he stopped well short of guaranteeing anything.
"I always approach every season like we're not going to win a game," Bailey said. "I don't understand coaches who can predict what they're going to do. I try to approach it in a way like our backs are against the wall if we don't come through."
While UC and State are gearing up to begin their seasons, WVU Tech is already underway and off to a rough start after dropping its first three games, all to NAIA No. 1 Tennessee Wesleyan.
The Golden Bears finished 22-29 last year and will look to improve on that this year as the team continues its season today at Laurinburg, N.C., with a game against St. Andrews University.
The next chance to check out Tech at home will be on Feb. 23 when it plays a noon game against Ohio Valley and follows with a tilt against Cincinnati Clermont at 3 p.m.
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him at twitter.com/RPritt.