WEST LIBERTY - Prior to the start of this season, West Liberty University head baseball coach Eric Burkle issued a challenge to his team - believe.
It's a simple suggestion, but it's yielded huge dividends so far for the Hilltoppers.
Heading into Saturday's matinee twinbill against W.Va. Wesleyan in Buckhannon, West Liberty stood at 8-1 overall and 6-0 in the inaugural Mountain East Conference standings.
''We've been pretty fortunate in what we're doing,'' second-year WLU head coach Eric Burkle said. ''We're on a pretty good roll.''
And the Toppers are doing it with pitching.
Through March 2, West Liberty had the top NCAA Division II Earned Run Average in the nation at 1.23.
''We can't ask for any more out of our pitchers,'' said Burkle, whose team swept a twinbill Friday from the Bobcats at Consol Energy Park in Washington, Pa.
''We've got a senior in Dylan Grosul, he's our leader. Then we come back with Mike Reef from (Zanesville) Rosecrans, he's been a bulldog for us.
''Then we go to a sophomore in Mark (Smyth, from Edison), he's been lights out. Then we have a freshman from Syracuse (N.Y.) in Yale Hughes.''
When you add in Greg Stagani (Edison) and Bruce Knisley out of the pen, you have the makings of a complete, productive unit.
''Everything so far has been picture perfect for us,'' Burkle said. ''We haven't hit a snag yet. Right now, we're on a roll and the guys believe.''
Aiding in the development of the pitching staff has been Justin Edwards. The former Wheeling Central, West Liberty and Washington Wild Things hurler joined the Toppers' staff when Burkle was hired. His main duty is to work with the pitchers.
''In my eight years at West Liberty we never had a pitching coach,'' Burkle pointed out. ''(Justin's) been at the next level and he passes on so much knowledge and know-how. The players want to know 'Why are we going to do this and do that?' He's been good for us. He's full bore. He brings huge energy every day.''
At this point in the season, West Liberty's pitching is way ahead of it's hitting. That doesn't surprise Burkle, who said pitchers are able to work on their delivery inside during the winter months. Hitters, meanwhile, aren't afforded the same luxury.
''But we're starting to come around offensively,'' he said. ''We're starting to do the little things right.''
Burkle said he has a wealth of talent at the skill positions and has had a difficult time getting everyone in games.
''Even with some seniors and upperclassmen sitting on the bench they don't get down, they're still leading,'' Burkle said. ''I think they were tired of losing. And now they're happy they're on the winning side. They're enjoying it.''
West Liberty's roster is stocked with home-grown talent. Among the players who've started every game for the Toppers are D.J. Busby (St. Clairsville), Jon-Michael Brunner (Linsly) and Jordan Meyer and Anthony Pierro, both of whom went to Steubenville.
Other locals on the roster include Josh Nagel, Michael Roach, Clay Francis (Martins Ferry), Jim Higginson (Cameron), Tory Fuscardo (Madonna), Phil Hilt (Edison), Nick Naumann, Tim Mirandy, Brandon Gast, Michael Zavolta and Dustin Henry (Wheeling Central), Trevor Stewart, Scott Castilow and Brandon Polanski (Wheeling Park), Darin Heatherington (Steubenville), and Myron Jellison (Union Local).
''The valley kids are great for us,'' Burkle said.
West Liberty was picked in the preseason to finish sixth in the MEC. That's motivated his team a tad, Burkle said.
''Our big rival, other than (Wheeling) Jesuit is Fairmont,'' he said. ''When they saw them fifth they saw that as a motivating factor.
''Our goal last year was to make the MEC tournament. This year we want to be .500 and make some noise in the tournament.''