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WICHITA, Kan. -- Gene Stephenson says this season will be no more important than any of his prior 28 years at Wichita State, and he has a point. The Shockers always have high expectations, fueled by their fans, the media and their coaches.
But this season is a pivotal one, partly because of what happened in the offseason. For one day, the face of Shockers baseball left Wichita for Oklahoma.
Stephenson was introduced as Oklahoma's coach in a news conference July 11, 2005. He donned a Sooners jersey and spoke of his strong desire to return to the College World Series, something he hadn't done with WSU since 1996. It would be an easier task with OU, he said, with the resources and other built-in advantages that come with being in a power conference such as the Big 12.
Stephenson changed his mind that night, saying he and his staff were uncomfortable with the scholarship situation at Oklahoma.
The Shockers welcomed him back with open arms. Pretty much.
There were some grumblings in the community that Shockers baseball needed new blood, and besides, Stephenson's glowing remarks about OU's superior position for success could damage his recruiting efforts at WSU.
Stephenson says that's nonsense. He insists that at 60, he has more energy and enthusiasm for Wichita State than ever before.
But he also acknowledges -- nay, preaches -- his job is harder than ever before.
That's another reason this season is pivotal. Nebraska has overtaken Wichita State as the premier program in the Midwest. The Shockers have finished as runner-up in the Missouri Valley Conference two of the past three years -- even with All-American right-hander Mike Pelfrey -- and three of the past five.
They're catching up
More universities in the Midwest are emphasizing baseball, boosting budgets and improving facilities. In that area, Wichita State and its spacious Eck Stadium aren't unique anymore.
"It's always been hard," Stephenson said. "It's going to continue to get harder because we only have limited resources at Wichita State. We don't have [Bowl Championship Series] football money or huge television contracts. We have the weather to deal with, with no indoor [practice] facility.
"But we've overcome these problems in the past, and we'll overcome them again. When times get difficult, you've got to work a little harder. That's all we'll do. We'll find ways to adjust."
They'll do so this year with a lot of speed, not much power, and a pitching staff that was depleted by injuries throughout fall workouts.
With Pelfrey gone, all eyes are on Derek Schermerhorn, who was recruited to WSU as a shortstop, but has instead played third and first base in his career. Stephenson said he won't hesitate to insert Schermerhorn in the middle infield either, depending on who else is hitting.
Schermerhorn made national waves as a sophomore with a 34-game hitting streak. He ended up leading the Valley in hits and stolen bases, while batting .329 with 60 RBI. However, he had just two home runs while batting third and cleanup. He was the offensive highlight of Stephenson's weakest offensive team, which ranked fifth in the nine-team conference with a .289 team average. The Shockers have been outhomered by opponents in two of the last three seasons.
Speed is a strength
"I'd like a higher average and more home runs," Schermerhorn said. "But we're probably not going to be a team that hits a lot of home runs. We'll be creating a lot of runs on the base paths … Really, this team isn't facing much pressure. Nobody knows about us. But it's going to be a good team. We're going to surprise a lot of people. I'm sure of that."
The Shockers return the bulk of a pitching staff that led the Valley with a 3.16 ERA, ninth-best in the nation. And they're anticipating the return of left-hander Kris Johnson, whose promising freshman year (7-0, 3.01 in 2004) was followed by season-ending elbow surgery last April.
Despite their offensive woes, the Shockers went 51-24 last season. They've never been below the 40-win plateau in any of Stephenson's seasons, a remarkable run that figures to continue.
But after tasting big success, including a national championship in 1989, nothing will satisfy Shockers fans other than a long-awaited return to the College World Series.
"What's it been, 10 years?" right fielder Matt Brown said. "Hey, Gene knows he needs to get back to Omaha, and we know it, too. It's important for us to show our fans and our recruits that Wichita State is still just as good as any place else -- if not better."
Adam Knapp covers the Shockers for the Wichita Eagle.