It’s been a year since Wichita State baseball coach Gene Stephenson and TD Ameritrade Park were introduced. The head Shocker was trying not to act too impressed.
It was the day before the Missouri Valley Conference tournament began, the first one at TDA. As his team practiced, Stephenson stood by the dugout and answered reporters’ questions about the new home of the College World Series, and its potential impact on Creighton baseball and the Missouri Valley baseball hierarchy.
“I don’t think facilities by themselves make or break a program,” Stephenson said. “Once the newness of this place wears off, it will be interesting to see how the university draws here. It’s a big-time deal now.”
Stephenson has long been a Creighton antagonist. At the time, I wrote it off to the old coach not wanting to give one inch to the Jays. In fact, as CU ended up beating WSU for the Valley tourney title later that week, I wondered in a column if there wasn’t a new sherriff in town.
Here we are, a year later, and the Shockers return to TDA for the final Valley series of the season. It’s been a long, hard year for the Jays. As good as last year’s double-title season was, this was one has been as bad.
With a team that returned a bulk of last year’s starters, CU has struggled to get anything going. The Jays are 21-26 and might give coach Ed Servais his first losing season in nine years at Creighton.
What happened? People point to the loss of ace Jonas Dufek, the power of right-fielder Trever Adams and the team glue provided by shortstop Jimmy Swift. But Servais said the loss of their leadership, especially by Adams, was felt more than any loss on the stat sheet.
The Jays never picked up the slack, didn’t respond well to adversity. And Servais said the lack of detail, and accountability, were huge.
“What those guys brought was the accountability factor and the leadership factor that, I’m finding out as I get older in coaching, is so, so valuable,” Servais said.
What this season turned out to be was a tribute to Gene Stephenson, whose “wait and see” warning last year looks pretty good now.
He wasn’t right if he thought attendance would tank at Creighton games. The newness has worn off at TDA, and the Jays have disappointed, but the crowds have stayed strong. CU averaged 4,546 last year. The number is 3,837 this season, with the biggest crowds of the season expected this weekend for the Shox.
They say that you find out who your friends are when times are tough. The Jays found out they still have a lot of friends.
But if Stephenson was hinting that a new ballpark wouldn’t make the ride smooth, he was right. This season showed just how fine the margin of error is at a mid-major in baseball, at Creighton. It’s hard to reload every year.
“At Creighton, depth is going to be an issue,” Servais said. “You’re not going to be two-deep at every position, not going to have 13 or 14 pitchers who look the same, going to have very few options if a guy needs to sit because he’s struggling or isn’t playing with the effort we’re looking for.”
But it was done, at the Valley level, for two decades by Stephenson in Wichita, Kan. In 34 years, Stephenson went to seven CWS’s, won the 1989 national title, played in 27 NCAA tournaments and hosted countless regionals. He built a national baseball program in the Missouri Valley.
That’s hard to do. And this year the Jays found out just how hard.
“We’re opposite type people, but I have a lot of respect for coach Stephenson,” Servais said. “I know how hard it is to win one Division I game, let alone win at 35 years and go to how many regionals and World Series and win a World Series. I appreciate what he’s done.”
Servais said his respect for Stephenson climbed after something that happened in last year’s Valley tournament.
“I shared this story with a lot of people,” Servais said. “We beat them last year in the conference tournament final. Our kids played a heck of a game. He (Stephenson) had to win that game to (qualify for NCAA regionals). He knew it, everyone else knew it.
“To lose that game, how disappointed he must have been, because it was the second straight year of not going to a regional, which never happened there. But he waited in the dugout here, and he shook hands with all of our players as they received their watch for winning the conference championship.
“I know how hard it is. When you lose, you want to go to your office and mull it over. And he waited out here for a good 20 minutes or so for that ceremony to take place and he shook our players’ hands. It really took me to a whole different level of respect for him.”