WEST LIBERTY - Even though West Liberty University is the sixth - and final - seed in the inaugural MEC Baseball Tournament, head coach Eric Burkle likes his team's chances.
The double-elimination event unfolds Thursday at 11 a.m. when the Hilltoppers (26-23, 23-18 MEC) meet top-seeded Shepherd University (37-10, 35-7) on the artificial surface at Epling Stadium in Beckley. All tournament games are scheduled for nine innings. The championship game is set for Saturday.
"Shepherd is a legit team. No doubt about it," Burkle said earlier this week. "They are a fully-funded university that really goes out and recruits. They are a very good hitting team. We know they are going to get seven or eight hits a game. We need to limit them of free bases - walks and errors - and then let them scatter those hits. They are also a very good two-strike hitting team."
The Rams possess four of the top six hitters in the conference, including Spencer Wolfe and Michael Lott, who are hitting .449 and .436 respectively, to lead the MEC. Jacob Carney (.392) and Matt Wilson (.390) are fifth and sixth.
"I think our pitching staff is more suited for a 9-inning game instead of seven innings." Burkle continued. "We've only played one 9-inning game this season, but we have a deep pitching staff.
"You never know what can happen in a one-game deal," he added.
The eighth-year head coach said he will send righthanded Mark Smyth to the hill in the opener.
"They haven't seen Mark," Burkle said of the Rams. "We scratched him from his scheduled start against them a couple of weeks ago, so that works in our favor."
Smyth, an Edison grad, is 5-3 with a 2.87 ERA. He has appeared in 10 games, all starts, and has struck out 30 batters in 59.2 innings. He has also walked 20.
Others who could see action on the hill are Ethan Yale Hughes, Dylan Grosul, Greg Stagani, Mike Reef and Sean Pare.
Leading the Hilltoppers offensively has been shortstop and leadoff hitter D.J. Busby, who Burkle just raves about.
The St. Clairsville product is WLU's leading hitter .349. He also tops the team in runs scored (30), hits (53), total bases (60), stolen bases (14-18) and total plate appearances (173).
"If he isn't all-conference I will be shocked," Burkle admitted. "He set a goal of hitting .370 and he nearly attained that. I can't say enough about him."
Other locals on the Hilltoppers roster are second baseman Josh Nagel, catcher Clay Francis and pitcher Michael Roach, all from Martins Ferry. Nagel and Roach were part of the seven-member senior class who was honored last weekend.
"Josh got pushed pretty hard this year by (freshman) Dylan Pounds," Burkle noted. "But Josh will get the start Thursday because of his experience. It's that senior factor. Josh has a little swag about him. He's not the best second baseman in the conference, but he thinks he is. He acts like he owns his position, and that's a good thing."
Roach suffered an arm injury during the off-season and wasn't able to pitch this season. He did throw out a ceremonial first pitch last weekend.
"Michael was injured and missed the entire season, but he is set to graduate on time and decided not to take a red-shirt," Burkle advised.
Francis, after originally attending Marietta, returned to the Ohio Valley and has been a great addition to the Hilltoppers.
"Clay has platooned with Jared Carranza and this is the first year since I've been here that we have been able to throw out runners attempting to steal," he said. "Clay has come on strong of late."
The duo has combined to catch 13 of 31 would-be stolen base attempts.
Steubenville's Anthony Pierro, Wheeling Central's Tim Mirandy and Linsly's Jon-Michael Brunner are also offensive leaders.
According to Burkle, the Rams have the top pitcher in the conference in lefthander Paul Hvozdovic. He is 8-0 with a 1.60 ERA and has authored three shutouts. Opponents are hitting just .207 off of him, while he has fanned 69 batters in 62 innings.
"He the pitcher of the year in the league in my mind," Burkle said. "He's really good."
In other tournament games, No. 2 Concord (36-14, 33-1) will meet No. 5 Notre Dame College (24-20, 22-17) and No. 3 West Virginia State (30-16, 26-14) faces No. 4 Urbana (23-19, 20-14).
St. Clairsville grad Jared Clovis is an infielder for Notre Dame College.
North can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org