By Grant Cohen, Barak Segura, Andrew Stockmann
(Photo credit to Grant Cohen)
Despite finishing 28-30 and finishing fifth in the Missouri Valley Conference, Wichita State baseball heads into their inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference with high expectations.
The Shockers return eight out of nine regular starters in the batting order, with four of those players hitting .295 or better last season.
Wichita State is aiming to reach their first NCAA Tournament since 2013, which was later vacated due to NCAA violations, but face a heavier load with more talented teams in their new conference and a league that sends multiple teams to postseason on a regular basis.
“Baseball is baseball,” junior outfielder and first baseman Greyson Jenista said. “You play hard, you play right, you do stuff the right way and you execute, you’re going to win. That doesn’t change from whatever conference you’re in. Competition has stepped up a little bit [in the American]. If we execute our game plan and play our game, we’re going to win a lot of games.”
Jenista had a breakout summer for the Cotuit Kettleers of the prestigious Cape Cod League, where we won the league MVP by hitting .310 with 25 runs scored in only 39 games. The Eudora, Kansas native led the Shockers in hitting last season with a .320 mark and added 41 RBI. He is ranked fifth on Baseball America’s list of the Top 50 collegiate MLB draft prospects.
Junior third baseman Alec Bohm, who led the Shockers in home runs last season with 11, returns after a breakout sophomore year. Bohm was named First Team All-MVC and finished second in the Cape Cod League in batting average with a .351 mark. Bohm joins Jenista on Baseball America’s list, as he is ranked 13th overall among collegiate draft prospects.
Senior Trey Vickers returns at shortstop after hitting .296 in Wichita State’s final season in the MVC. Other returners include catchers Noah Croft and Gunnar Troutwine, infielders Jordan Boyer, Alex Jackson and Luke Ritter, and outfielder Travis Young. Ritter and Young both competed in the National Baseball Congress World Series over the summer, where Young competed against the Kansas Stars, a team stacked with former MLB players such as Chipper Jones.
“The expectation hasn’t really changed since I’ve been here. The expectation is to win,” Jenista said. “On my end and our job is to score runs, put runs on the scoreboard and score one more than the other team does. We have a lot of returners on the pitching staff and their job is to keep (the opponents) from scoring.
“These [fall] practices, we’ve all been around it and we’re experienced. We like that. You just have to keep grinding each day. We’re just trying to find one thing to get better at each day and we’ll move along in our fall.”
On the mound, the Shockers lost three of their top four ERA leaders, including first team All-MVC pitcher and current White Sox farmhand Zach Lewis. Cody Tyler, Tommy Barnhouse and Keylan Killgore return as the leaders on the mound, with all starting eight or more games last season.
The Shocker pitching staff posted a 4.77 ERA over the course of 58 games, with opponents hitting .257. Despite giving up over four runs per game, the Shockers collected an average of over eight strikeouts per game in 2016.
Freshman pitcher Garrett Kocis said that the upperclassmen have helped improve the focus of keeping the Shockers competitive, especially facing better competition in the American.
“They work really hard, so it shows us how to get on their level,” Kocis said. “They show us how to be good like them. They set the tone.”
The American had three teams compete in the NCAA Tournament, with Houston earning the rights to host a Regional. Although no team was able to advance into the Super Regionals, all three postseason teams earned 40 or more wins in 2016.
Five teams finished with a winning record and seven out of eight teams finished last season in the top 100 RPI ratings.
“There’s going to be a lot tougher competition,” freshman outfielder Blake Burd said. “We’re all jacked about the teams we’ll get to face. We’re excited for the season to start.”