Wichita State generally hides the welcome mat when Creighton comes to town.
The rivalry in any sport between the schools has developed into perhaps the most heated in the Missouri Valley. And that's under normal circumstances.
That's why coach Ed Servais is uncertain what to expect when Creighton makes its final regular-season road trip as a Valley member to Wichita's Eck Stadium for a three-game baseball series against the Shockers.
“It could be interesting,” he said.
Creighton is moving to the new Big East next season. He hopes to continue playing the Shockers. He sees value in taking teams to Wichita, where the fans believe no Shocker pitcher has ever thrown a ball and no opponent has ever thrown a strike, and they're not afraid to make that clear to the umpires.
“I've always been interested in exposing our players to the environment that they have down there,” Servais said. “I think it's good for us and good for college baseball. I don't mind intense rivalries.
“Sometimes people misinterpret respect and intensity for hatred. That's not the case with these guys. We're going to go after them and they're going to go after us. At the end of the day, isn't that what it's all about?”
Undoubtedly, the Shockers would love to celebrate a title in front of their rivals after Sunday's final game. Wichita State could assure itself of at least a tie for the regular-season championship by sweeping the Bluejays.
Wichita State (30-22) leads the conference with a 14-4 record heading into its final league series. Illinois State, which like Creighton has six games to play, stands second at 11-4, while Missouri State is third at 11-7 and Creighton (26-13) sits fourth at 9-6.
Generally, Creighton's trips to Wichita do not end well for the Bluejays. The Shockers hold a 66-23-1 edge in games played in Wichita. Creighton's only series win in Wichita since 1980 came in 2003. Under Servais, the Bluejays are 3-10 in regular-season games at Eck Stadium.
They lost two of three games in their last visit in 2011. Shortstop Alex Staehely was a sophomore on that club, and he remembers the experience well.
“It's a different environment than we're used to playing in,” he said. “The fans are right on top of you and they get on you. It's fun to play in that type of environment, where the fans are passionate.
“It's a lot different than going to Illinois State, where a good crowd is 300 people. You always want to play in front of big crowds where the fans are on you the whole game.”
Creighton heads into the series mathematically still in the championship race but would need huge weekends against Wichita State and Missouri State and some stumbles by Illinois State to have a chance.
Still, the fact that a team picked seventh in the preseason is still alive may illustrate the Bluejays' growth. Servais lost almost his entire pitching staff from last season's NCAA tournament team in addition three position starters.
“A lot of people said this would be a rebuilding year for us,” Servais said. “I've never been interested in that.”
Instead, Servais is intent on teaching winning baseball. His teams rely on solid defense, timely hitting and pitchers who throw strikes.
“I think this year shows, more than anything, that if you can execute the game of baseball, you can win games,” Servais said. “That's what we talk to our players about when they arrive in the fall: that we're going to learn how to execute the game of baseball.
“Games are rarely won. Most of the time they're lost. Our system, if executed right, forces the other team to win the game. In many cases, teams can't do that. I'm more convinced than ever with the system that we play. The only disappointment is that I haven't been able to get our pitchers to throw as many strikes as I'd like.”
Some of that is tied to the staff's youth: Creighton relies on six freshman pitchers. And some of the team's offensive struggles are a result of injury. Third baseman Federico Castagnini and first baseman Reagan Fowler each have missed four games because of concussions.
Jordan Makovicka, a part-time starter at designated hitter, underwent surgery this week to repair a facial injury suffered when he was hit by a line drive while standing in the dugout last week at Illinois State. Creighton also has been without outfielder Mike Gerber since April 26 because of an appendectomy.
Creighton is 4-4 since losing Gerber, the team's chief power threat.
“We've just kept trying to get better,” Staehely said. “The guys that were around last year know how important that is.”
The Bluejays overcame a season of struggles at the end, winning the Valley tournament and claiming a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
“That team was better at the end of the year than it was at the beginning or even the middle of the season,” Staehely said. “We know anything can happen. You can't give up.
“Once you get to the conference tournament, and you're playing at the top of your game like we were last year, you have a shot to get into a regional.”
NOTES: Creighton will start redshirt freshman Tommy Strunc (6-2, 4.05 ERA) in Friday's 6:30 p.m. game against Wichita State's Cale Elam (5-2, 2.26). Millard West graduate A.J. Ladwig (4-4, 5.37 ERA) will start Saturday's 1:45 p.m. game for Wichita State against Creighton's Nick Musec (1-5, 5.19 ERA). … Casey Gillaspie from Millard North ranks third on the Shockers with a .307 average and leads the team in runs scored with 41. Two players from Lincoln Southeast — Taylor Doggett and Tanner Kirk — are hitting .304 and .267. … Gerber will miss at least another five games. He won't return to the doctor until May 17. Servais said Gerber has not been able to do anything baseball-related since his surgery.
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