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Herd baseball, track beating the odds

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- THE FINAL weekend of the 2012-13 college sports calendar was one of the best ever for Marshall athletics, considering the odds.

In track and field - and that can only be the women's team at MU - two athletes emerged as All-Americans. In baseball, pitcher Aaron Blair was picked 36th overall in baseball's First-Year Player Draft, with centerfielder Isaac Ballou following in the 15th round.

Blair is the Herd's highest-ever draft pick, and can expect a seven-figure signing bonus from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Ballou may be the program's highest-selected position player, and his affiliation with the Nationals should earn him a return to Appalachian Power Park at some point, perhaps next year.

On the track, the Thundering Herd's Crystal Walker finished fifth in the long jump and Vanessa Jules placed sixth in the heptathlon. They combined to give the Herd seven points in the national meet - four years ago, the Herd scored that many in the Conference USA meet.

Remember, Marshall doesn't have its own track. Or a viable baseball field.

These aren't examples of former athletic director Bob Marcum's "doing more with less" line. We're talking about making something out of nothing.

Track coach Jeff Small and baseball coach Jeff Waggoner, take a bow.

A word about Small: He is one of two head coaches finishing their 18th season at MU. To tell you how long that is, he was coaching when Randy Moss took a break from his offseason football duties to destroy Southern Conference foes in the sprints.

The other 18-year head coach is Bob Gray of men's soccer, and there's a story to be retold there. Gray's soccer program went on Marcum's chopping block in 2002, a potential move that was met with a monstrous protest from the soccer community. Instead, Small found himself minus a men's team.

A few years later, about the time MU entered Conference USA, another shoe fell. More correctly, the shoes stopped falling on the Walter "Lefty" Rollins track, which was taken for new residence halls.

Small has shown his love for Huntington and the Marshall area the hard way, suffering through some lean, lean years in C-USA - 12th and last place in the 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2011 league outdoor meets; 11th in 2008, 2010 and 2012.

This spring was a lot different.

 Back in early April, the Herd defeated Ohio and West Virginia in a three-team get together in Athens. I hereby confess: I immediately asked myself, "OK, who did WVU leave home?"

It wasn't a fluke. The Herd finished fifth in the C-USA meet, with its 63 points more than double the previous high of 28. Jules was named the Performer of the Meet after blowing away the heptathlon record, and Walker won the triple jump and placed in the high jump. Four individual performers and the 4x400-meter relay team qualified for the NCAA East preliminary meet.

Walker qualified for nationals in the long jump, with Jules in the heptathlon. The seniors eventually became the first MU athletes to make the national meet since 2003, when Oak Hill's Erin Compton finished eighth in the discus.

Small's formula is simple, and necessary: Find undeveloped talent and develop it better than anybody else - for example, Walker has tacked on another foot to her long jump since transferring from Stephen F. Austin in the fall of 2011.

He made a heptathlete out of Jules, who reluctantly accepted the role. The Silver Spring, Md., native qualified for the NCAA prelims in 2011 and 2012 in the high jump, but couldn't get much past 5 feet, 9 inches.

"We had to kind of push her into it," Small said. "She fought it for about a year. I just tried to convince her that she is a very good high jumper, but as far as being a national-class or a world-class athlete, she would have to improve her high jump 6 or 7 inches. That's pretty difficult.

"At the national meet, she comes up and tells us, 'Hey, some guy came up and told me I did a great job and I had a lot of potential.'  I asked, 'Where is he?' and she pointed to him. I said, 'That's Dan O'Brien, the former world-record holder in the decathlon.

"I said, 'Go get back to the hotel, 'Google' him and see if you can learn something from that guy.'"  

Small's program will be one of the beneficiaries of MU's new indoor practice facility, which will include a 300-meter track. But Waggoner, finishing his seventh season, seems doomed to play home games in Charleston and Beckley forever. I'm sure he is thrilled that WVU entered the Big 12 and is getting a ballpark just for the asking.

Waggoner has taken his lumps - two last-place finishes in a row are just one example - but he has developed high-quality talent. The pros are starting to mount: Eddie Rush, Steven Blevins, Tommy Johnson, Ryan Kiel, Kevin Shackleford, Shane Ferrell, Victor Gomez, Ian Kadish, Arik Sikula, Rhett Stafford, Greg Williams, Joe Church, Jesse Fernandez, Mike Mason and ...

Dan Straily, who has made 16 starts with the Oakland Athletics. But he was drafted in the 24th round in 2009, much lower than Blair was picked over the weekend.

"He was drafted 21st round in high school," Waggoner said of Blair. "He came to us throwing 88, 91 [mph], but he had some baby fat. He had to strengthen his body, strengthen his core. ... When he came in the program, he didn't have a good changeup; now he's got a great changeup. It's a big-league changeup."

Ballou finished his four-year career as MU's all-time leader in triples (16) and walks (129) and was second in stolen bases (64), plus he covered a lot of acreage in center field. He benefited from the MU weight program, which needs no apology - he bulked up from 165 to 205 pounds.

So how is Waggoner pulling this off, and how will he pull it off in a deeper C-USA lineup gathering in 2014?

"We have to sell them on the fact that we develop players," Waggoner said. "Other schools will go against us when we recruit somebody about our field situation. But the one thing we come back with other schools is we're developing players, getting opportunities to play pro ball. We don't bring in a ton of kids - we bring in guys and develop them, and they get the opportunity to play right away, and play in a great conference."

His team will benefit from that indoor facility, but sheesh - give than man a ballpark. Someday?

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  • There isn't a challenge that MU and New England Patriots great Troy Brown won't take on, it seems. Last week, he continued to branch out in his media pursuits.

    As you may recall, Brown spent the 2010 season as a radio analyst for Thundering Herd football games. He has performed radio and television duties in Boston, with WEEI and Comcast Sports, respectively.

    Last week, he willingly went to Toledo to participate in something called the NFL Sports Journalism & Communications Boot Camp. He and 22 other current and former players attended a Toledo Mud Hens game and took their turns at the keyboard.

    He won't say it in those words, but he found out you must have a few screws loose to do this for a living.

    "Those kind of things are a little tough, a little out of my league," he told the Boston Globe. "The writing aspect, deadlines make it really tough. You don't know if they need 200 words, 300 words, whatever the space is, that's the challenging part."

    Brown has taken a ribbing or two about all this media work. It seems he was a little camera-shy in his years with the Patriots.

    "I wanted no part of media," Brown said. "It wasn't that I was trying to 'dis' the media, I just didn't like doing it ... I didn't think I did a good job when I had a camera in my face."

    Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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