(Note: This article is part of a series, by Jeff Dahn, that highlights specific collegiate baseball programs going into the 2011 season. To view the articles on other schools in this series please click here.)
It could perhaps be described as a Horatio Alger novel with ball caps and batting gloves – Alger’s familiar “Rags to Riches” theme scripted to reflect a journey from a barren Kansas playing field to historic Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb.
Gene Stephenson arrived at Wichita State University in 1977 to re-establish the long dormant Shockers baseball program. He rode into town after having spent the previous five seasons as a top assistant under head coach Enos Semore at the baseball-rich University of Oklahoma.
The Sooners’ program had everything. The Shockers had nothing.
There was very little money for the WSU program; there was no game field; there was no practice field; there was no equipment. And most glaringly, there were no players.
“There wasn’t even a baseball,” Stephenson recalled in a recent telephone conversation with Perfect Game. “I had to bring a baseball with me from the University of Oklahoma that was signed by all the bat-girls. I took that with me and I still have it, by the way.”
Stephenson is a 1968 graduate of the University of Missouri, where he led the Big Eight Conference in hitting and was an ABCA All-American. He spent a year as a graduate assistant at Missouri, and then served a three-year stint in the U.S. Army that included a tour of active duty in the Vietnam War.
Upon returning to civilian life, he took the job at Oklahoma before moving on to Wichita. The WSU baseball program had shut down in 1971 and the rebuilding job Stephenson faced when he arrived on campus in 1977 seemed insurmountable.
“I was being paid $1,000 a month on a one month contract, which was a huge decrease from what I was making at Oklahoma. But it was an opportunity,” he recalled. “An impossible situation for most people can be a great opportunity for somebody else. So I thought it was a great opportunity, but most people in college baseball thought it was a dead end, without question.”
Just four years after Stephenson’s 1978 debut season, the Shockers earned their first of seven appearances at the College World Series in Omaha, where they lost to Florida State in the national championship game. Meanwhile, back in Wichita, the team still didn’t have its own stadium and was playing home games in an open field where the only amenities were recently built dugouts.
“The most amazing thing is not just that we accomplished that in that short amount of time but that we’ve maintained it,” Stephenson said.
The story of Wichita State baseball and Gene Stephenson certainly is one of sustained excellence. His 1,724 victories rank second among NCAA Division I coaches.
Stephenson took WSU teams to the CWS in 1982 ’88, ’89, ’91, ’92, ’93 and ’96, and beat Texas for the national championship in 1989. The Shockers have made 27 NCAA tournament appearances in the last 31 years, and have won 20 of the last 26 Missouri Valley Conference regular season championships and 17 of the last 21 MVC Tournament championships.
WSU didn’t get an NCAA tournament invitation last season despite a 41-19 record and an MVC regular season championship. Only MVC Tournament champion Illinois State advanced to the 2010 postseason out of the league.
Stephenson, 65, seemed especially reflective and perhaps even a little nostalgic while speaking in late January, one day before the start of preseason practice. His emotions were necessarily tempered as he prepared for his 34th season in Wichita, certainly understandable considering an off-season tragedy the Shockers program has had to deal with the last five months.
On Aug. 23, senior outfielder and pitcher Mitch Caster was driving home to Wichita after playing in a summer league game in Rochester, Minn., and was killed in a traffic accident in Iowa along the route. His death stunned everyone in the tight-knit Wichita State community.
“It’s a very tragic situation,” Stephenson said. “It’s had a traumatic effect on a lot of the team (members) and there are quite a few guys who look at things from a different perspective now. We all tend to take things for granted and nothing’s ever a given. He had a huge number of great friends on this team, and he being an incoming fourth-year player made him very well-liked by everyone. We miss him a lot.”
While reflecting on the recent past, Stephenson also looked ahead toward a 2011 season that features the return of senior right-hander Tim Kelly, an NCBWA Preseason All-American. Kelly was 11-2 with a 3.94 ERA in 15 starts and one relief appearance in 2010, and struck out 80 in 96 innings of work.
Four starting position players also return, including sophomore first baseman Johnny Coy (.331, 7 HRs, 32 RBIs), senior first baseman Preston Springer (.324, 11 HRs, 59 RBIs) and junior infielder Tyler Grimes (.249, 42 runs, 7 SBs).
“We have promise,” he said. “It always depends on toughness and trying to work on all the little things so we can execute well in the games. We’re never going to be the most talented team in the country because of where we’re located – lack of population, lack of good weather, lack of a lot of things.”
Stephenson doesn’t feel sorry for him self – never has and never will. He’s probably made more out of his situation than any other college baseball coach in America as his extraordinary resume attests. But he also acknowledges the difficulties of coaching at a school that is a member of a league – the Missouri Valley Conference – that is a non-BCS conference.
Athletic programs at schools that belong to BCS conferences benefit from the large amount of money generated by their football programs.
“The financial pressures are very difficult from day to day,” Stephenson said. “We’ve always strived to try to get players here who come for what we call ‘the right reasons.’ The people make all the difference in the world whether it’s the coaches or the players or the academic supporters.
“Everything about this program is really special. It’s unique in all of college baseball. I don’t know of another place you could call anything like this.”
Wichita State is certainly unique in terms of attendance at its home games at Eck Stadium. The Shockers averaged 3,643 fans in 2010, which ranked 10th nationally. WSU was the only school from a non-BCS conference in the top 10.
Six schools from the Southeastern Conference – LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Alabama – Texas from the Big 12, and Clemson and Florida State from the Atlantic Coast Conference topped WSU on the attendance chart.
“Our facilities (now) are second-to-none but we’ve had to raise all the money privately over the years and it’s been one step at a time,” Stephenson said. “We have great support in the community and great support with our fan-base, and we have a tremendously loyal group of alumni players who believe that everything we strive to be, we can still be.”
Wichita State University boasts an undergraduate enrollment of just more than 14,000 and perhaps is best known for its acclaimed department of aerospace engineering. More than 85 percent of the undergraduates are from Kansas, and most of the players on the baseball roster are from Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri.
Stephenson thrives on the challenge of bringing the “right” student-athlete to the Wichita campus, despite the obstacles that exist.
“We’ve had great success on the field and in the classroom for years and years and years, and that’s just a great reflection on the players who have been here before … and their efforts to try to make this program special every year,” Stephenson said. “It’s gotten harder and harder and harder because of the financial support the BCS conference schools have.”
He continued: “One thing you have a difficult time measuring is heart and how unselfish the players are. I really believe the (successful) people today are still the people who are the most consistent and have made the most of their talent. The most important things about winning are who puts together all aspects of the game and executes, and who’s the most unselfish and team-oriented.”
Stephenson continues to believe he can use that type of player to win a national championship. He feels WSU can offer a young player a tremendous opportunity to develop not only as a ballplayer but as a person.
“I still believe that if we can find the right people our talent level will be good enough to be able to compete at the highest level and beat anybody,” he said.
The Shockers open the 2011 season Feb. 18 at home against Niagara, and will do so while still grieving Caster. But Coach Stephenson will be in the dugout, ready to start his 34th season with no plans to leave Wichita, Kansas, anytime soon. He almost left in 2005 when he briefly accepted the coaching job at Oklahoma, only to back out and remain at WSU.
“This is our home. My kids and grandkids are all here. Wichita is a wonderful community,” Stephenson said. “It’s still going to be cold at times and we’re still going to have four seasons, and that’s the way it is. We’re never going to be a BCS conference school, that’s for sure, but we still believe we can compete with anybody and we still believe we can go out and challenge for national championships every year.”
What follows is a list of players on the Wichita State 2011 roster who either participated in Perfect Game events or created a Perfect Game Profile while still in high school. Click on the player’s name to view his complete PG profile:
Zach Beringer – PG P-C Indoor
Cale Elam – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Brian Flynn – PG South Top Prospect/PG WWBA
Kris Gardner – PG South Top Prospect/PG WWBA
Ryan Hege – PG WWBA
Aaron LaBrie –PG Midwest Top Prospect/PG P-C Indoor/PG WWBA
Don Lambert – PG WWBA/PG-BA World
Tobin Mateychick – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Chris O’Brien – PG National Showcase
Dayne Parker – PG WWBA
Preston Springer – PG South Top Prospect/PG WWBA
Foster Vielock – PG WWBA
If there is a college program that you want PG to do a story on, please feel free to let us know. Email Jeff Dahn at firstname.lastname@example.org.