College Top 25
It was 70 degrees and sunny in Wichita, Kan., back on Friday, Feb. 19, 2016, with no more than an 11-mph northwest wind sweeping across Eck Stadium on the northeast corner of the Wichita State University campus.
The Wichita State Shockers were hosting Northern Colorado in the 2016 season-opener on that beautiful February afternoon. They had jumped on the visiting Bears early and took an 8-0 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning when head coach Todd Butler decided to let a couple of his younger players experience some game action for the first time.
With one out and a runner on second, Butler sent freshman Alec Bohm to the plate to pinch-hit for the Shockers’ designated hitter. Bohm, then a 6-foot-5, 240-pound third baseman from Omaha, Neb., stepped in, and in his first plate appearance as a collegiate ballplayer drove the ball over the left-centerfield fence for a two-run home run. Debuts are seldom more auspicious than that.
“That first at-bat, I couldn’t tell you what I was thinking right there,” Bohm told Perfect Game during a recent telephone interview. “I was nervous as all get-out, but after that it just felt right being (at Wichita State). I love it and looking back at it I’d come here 10 out of 10 times if I had to do it over again.”
Bohm won’t be able to do it all over again, although Shockers’ fans can be excused for wishing they could watch Bohm step up to the plate with his Rawlings bat in hand for three more seasons. Projected as a first-round pick in the upcoming MLB June Amateur Draft – Perfect Game ranks him the No. 18 overall draft-eligible prospect – he won’t even be back for his senior season next fall.
And that’s the way it should be. Bohm and at least one other high-profile Shocker – centerfielder Greyson Jenista – are at the center of a wave of change inside the Wichita State program, and they deserve to have the opportunity to move on to professional ball.
This spring, they are part of a team that will make history at the school. Wichita State begins its first season of play in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) this weekend, a debut that comes after the Shockers ruled the roost in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) for much of the past five decades.
After three straight losing seasons – both overall and in MVC play – the writing was on the wall for a big turnaround with this year’s group of Shockers. Butler returned nine position players that started at least 34 of the team’s 58 games in 2017, including Bohm, Jenista and senior infielder Trey Vickers, who started all 58. That trio combined for 24 home runs and 113 RBI last season.
Five pitchers with starting experience also returned, including this season’s weekend starters, junior right-hander Codi Heur (4-0, 3.18 ERA this season), freshman right-hander Liam Eddy (5-0, 1.57) and junior righty Connor Lungwitz (1-0, 3.18).
Six pitchers who worked out of the bullpen were also welcomed back. They included junior righty Clayton McGuinness and senior righty Chandler Sanburn, who made 14 and 12 appearances, respectively, through 21 games this season.
The Shockers stood 17-4 after a three-game sweep of Furman last weekend, its final non-conference weekend series of the season; on Monday, they debuted at No. 23 in the Perfect Game College National Top 25 Rankings. They open AAC play against Eastern Carolina in Greenville, N.C., Thursday night.
“We’ve pitched it really well and we’ve swung it OK (but) our bats still haven’t really got going for the most part,” Bohm said. “Our losses have really been on the offense because those were the days we just didn’t hit and didn’t score any runs for our pitchers.”
And as for playing in the AAC, Bohm added: “We’re excited to match-up with those guys and just kind of get rolling with that. We’re looking forward to it and it should be a lot of fun.”
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THE 2018 SHOCKERS DID A LOT OF GROWING UP OVER THE LAST two or three seasons thanks to some aggressive non-conference scheduling by Butler. Three-game weekend series were scheduled against heavy-hitters LSU and Texas Tech in 2017; Cal State Fullerton and TCU in 2016 and Long Beach State, UC Santa Barbara and TCU in 2015.
“This team is an older team, mainly juniors and seniors, and this team has been playing since they were freshmen,” Coach Butler told PG in a recent telephone interview. “It’s taken time to build the culture and the mentality and the attitude of those great teams when Coach (Gene) Stephenson had it rolling here in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“It’s been a lot of hard work … and it was a great challenge, but I’m really excited about this group that we have that we put out on the field.”
The main thing, of course, is the experience these players can bring at an opponent day-in and day-out. Not only have most of the six seniors on the roster been involved in 175 Wichita State games over the last three years and most of the 12 juniors in 116 over the last two, but they also play summer collegiate ball in leagues from coast-to-coast.
That’s a lot of at-bats and a lot of playing time, but in the minds of the players it’s something that must be done if the program is going to return to a lofty perch on the national college baseball landscape.
“We’ve got a lot of maturity and a lot of experience, and everybody is going to rely on that this year,” Bohm said. “There’s been no panic if something goes wrong early. In years previous, it was kind of like, ‘Oh no, here we go’ and we were just waiting to lose a game; now we just play the game and have fun.”
When Butler took over in 2014 he did so with the belief he could get the program back on track in three years. The seniors on this year’s roster were part of his first recruiting class – and there are some good players in that group – but it was his second class – the current juniors – that most impacted the program.
“We’re mainly just catching up to everyone else,” he said while noting that the recruiting process has changed radically in the last several years with more and more prep prospects making their commitments as freshman and sophomores.
“But the thing I’m most proud of is that we have two junior college players on our roster. Thirty-three of the 35-man roster are all high school products … and we haven’t had a lot of defections or transfers; guys stayed with us,” Butler continued. “It’s really rewarding to work as hard as we have and hopefully this season we can go out there and put a stamp back on Wichita State baseball.”
The program has been on a wild rollercoaster ride over the last five decades. Wichita State closed-down its baseball program after the 1970 season and didn’t field a team from 1971-77. The decision was made to bring it back to life in 1978, and the legendary Stephenson was hired to oversee the rebuilding job. It didn’t take long: The Shockers finished 43-30 in his first season and 65-15 in year-two.
They won the MVC Tournament championship in 1980, the first of 17 under Stephenson. That was also the year the Shockers advanced an NCAA Regional for the first time with 26 more trips to follow. They made their first of seven College World Series appearances in 1982 and won the CWS National Championship in 1989. Wichita State’s most recent appearance at the CWS was in 1996, however.
The school’s move from the MVC to the AAC was made primarily for the benefit of the Shockers’ basketball program, but the baseball team’s RPI is also going to strengthen by playing in what is considered a much more competitive league. And, in Butler’s mind, it is also going to be a boon for recruiting.
When Wichita State played in the MVC, he pointed out, the team would hop on a bus and head north for games. Now, in the AAC, the Shockers will be boarding planes and heading primarily south and east to big-city destinations in Florida (Tampa, Orlando), Louisiana (New Orleans), Ohio (Cincinnati), Tennessee (Memphis) and Texas (Houston).
And even visits to Storrs, Conn., and Greenville, N.C., to face UConn and Eastern Carolina will provide a challenge because those programs have been strong in the past.
“The big thing is we’re going to big cities with nice facilities and with programs that put money into baseball,” Butler said. “Now we have to compete with those big cities in the South and with the recruiting in the Midwest, so we’ve had to broaden our recruiting. I think we can dip down south more to get players because now we’re playing in the south.”
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ALEC BOHM ENJOYED A STORIED CAREER AT OMAHA RONCALLI CATHOLIC High School, hitting .526 as a junior and .533 during his senior season; he was named first-team all-state both athletically and academically after those seasons.
Perfect Game ranked Bohm the No. 1 prospect in Nebraska and No. 157 nationally in the class of 2015 and named him an Honorable Mention All-American. He was included on the prestigious Top Prospect List at the 2014 PG Rocky Mountain Showcase, the 2014 PG Midwest Top Prospect Showcase and the 2015 PG National Pre-Draft Showcase.
He was also named to the all-tournament team at the 2012 PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship while playing with Omaha-based UBA Black and again at the 2014 Kernels Foundation tournament playing with Cedar Rapids-based Iowa Select Black.
Bohm played in two other PG WWBA tournaments with Iowa Select Black in 2014, including the PG/EvoShield Upperclass National Championship in Phoenix. He was a member of the Midwest PG Red squad that played at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., also in 2014.
Those experiences during the summer before his senior year in high school were eye-opening for the then-17-year-old prospect; they also provided valuable exposure in front of scouts and college recruiters.
“When I was playing with (coach) Steve James and Iowa Select … we faced a lot of good competition with that team – it was really fun, and I think it helped out a lot,” Bohm said. “Going down to Florida and going out to Arizona, I think it kind of got me ready for college with the travel and being away from home.”
When Bohm – who went undrafted out of high school – first arrived in Wichita he was 6-foot-5, 240-pounds; he has since dropped 30 pounds to his current playing weight of 220. Butler recalled that Bohm looked like a big kid without much foot control or balance, but he also knew the big kid could really hit.
“When we signed him, I thought that we actually got a gem, a diamond in the rough,” Butler said. “He could hit when he stepped on campus. He has great vision, he has fantastic strike-zone discipline, he can hit the ball with power to all fields.”
The only concern Butler had with his budding star’s game was his ability as a defender at third base. Through a lot of hard work, Butler now firmly believes that is the position Bohm will play as a pro.
“Looking back to my freshman year, I was just a young kid who swung the bat and tried to drive in more runs than he let in; my defense wasn’t very good,” Bohm said. “I went out and I worked real hard on it that next summer, and it’s gotten a lot better. I’ve improved overall with my approach at the plate and I’ve gotten better offensively, and it’s been a lot of fun.”
Bohm played in 51 games (44 starts) as a freshman and hit .303-6-30; he put together a 13-game hitting streak during one stretch and had 13 multi-hit games. He started all 58 games as a sophomore and hit .305-11-40. He enjoyed an 18-game hitting streak and had 18 multi-hit games and was named first-team all-MVC as a third baseman.
With 13 doubles, two triples and five stolen bases, Bohm also showed he is far from a one-dimensional player. He is, in fact, what big league clubs look for from a first-round pick.
“He’s a great student in the classroom; he’s very intelligent,” Butler said. “He has baseball sense as far as a baserunner, and he might be our best bunter (although) I haven’t bunted him in three years. He’s a great worker; he comes early, stays late.”
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WITH THE SHOCKERS ENJOYING A SATISFYING TURNAROUND SEASON, Bohm is taking a cautious, let’s-just-wait-and-see approach to the draft, that big, white elephant in the room nobody wants to talk about.
“It’s hard not to think about it but at the same time you can’t think about it,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m just worried about (our next game) coming up and you’ve got to take it one day at a time, one game at a time, one pitch at a time. It’s all that kind of cliché stuff, but it’s true. You can’t look ahead to something that’s not promised.”
At least he has someone very close to him to share his thoughts with. Jenista, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound centerfielder from Eudora, Kan., is ranked the No. 26 overall prospect in this year’s draft class or, in other words, another projected first-rounder.
Bohm hit .355 with five home runs, seven doubles, 22 RBI and 20 runs scored and Jenista .328 with five home runs, a double, 14 RBI and 18 runs for the Shockers through 21 games.
“We’re kind of in the same boat,” Bohm said. “We’ve talked about it with each other a little bit, but he’ll tell you and I’ll tell you that we’re thinking about Wichita State and not what’s to come. We want to get this program back to where it’s supposed to be. That’s what our focus is and whatever happens after that happens.”
Watching Bohm and Jenista develop into elite draft prospects has provided Butler with moments of pure joy over the last three seasons. He sees two young men who he describes as “great people” who have their priorities in order and seem to excel at everything they do.
“They’re not wrapped-up into who’s (at the games) and who’s watching them,” he said. “They’re into trying to win at Wichita State; their goal is to help us win. I’m thankful for how seriously they’ve approached that. They want to win.”
As the start of the regular season neared last month, Bohm said he sensed that every player in the clubhouse was coming in with the same mindset. They wanted to be the group that brought back to Wichita State baseball a culture of winning.
And, based their collective experience, they all agreed they were the group that could do it. The seniors and juniors had experienced more lows than highs over the previous two or three years and it was time to turn things around.
As for Bohm, he can always think back to that first plate appearance in February 2016 and smile at the memory that his first hit while wearing a Wichita State Shockers uniform was a two-run home to left-center at Eck Stadium. That place has been his home for three years now, and he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’ve been surrounded by some great people here,” Bohm said. “I’ve been lucky to have some great coaches while I’ve been here and some great role models. There are guys that have really been here to serve the players and work with you and make you better. They’ve put us before anything else and it’s been great; I’ve loved it.”