It may or may not be a coincidence that coach Jeff Waggoner loves this year’s schedule.
“We open up in a tournament at Wake Forest,” said the Herd coach, who is entering his ninth season at Marshall. “We’ve loaded up.
“We have the opportunity to play an ACC team in Wake Forest, a Coastal Carolina team that is a traditional power – some very strong competition right at the start of the season.
“We have some young guys who are trying to win positions in our starting lineup and I wanted to make sure they get tested early. That’s the kind of schedule we need to play to prepare us for Conference USA.”
Marshall’s first 14 games on the schedule are to be played in the Carolinas, with a series at North Carolina A&T sandwiched between the Wake Forest and Coastal Carolina tournaments, and then an early start to the C-USA season, at East Carolina March 7-9.
The new look Conference USA has moved from eight league series and 24 games to 10 conference weekends and 30 games. Waggoner believes the conference will be tougher now than ever.
“We lost some solid programs in Houston, Memphis and Central Florida, but we brought in real baseball schools,” he said. “We’ve added Florida Atlantic, which was basically a 17-inning game away from going to Omaha (College World Series) last year and brings its whole team back. FIU has been a perennial powerhouse.
“UTSA, Louisiana Tech, Charlotte and Old Dominion are all really good and growing programs. You’ve got Middle Tennessee State. It’s going to be a huge challenge, but it’s also going to be fun to go to new places, great stadiums and competing against more of the best in college baseball.”
Of the 12 other teams playing C-USA baseball this season, the Herd will play all in the regular season except Rice and Charlotte. There will be 12 programs in the league in 2015, when Western Kentucky comes aboard as Tulane and ECU move to the AAC.
After those first 14 road games, Marshall hopes to enjoy its first real home game in two years, hosting Morehead State on March 11 thanks to extensive renovations at the Kennedy Center diamond on West Virginia Route 2.
The field has a new artificial turf infield surface, and the perpetually soggy outfield has been fitted with a new drainage system and re-sodded. Improvements have also been made to the dugouts, bullpens and fencing.
“It’s great to have an opportunity to play seven or eight games there, and also to give us a more consistent place to practice regularly,” Waggoner said. “It gives us a chance to sleep in our own beds and wake up and play a home game, which we haven’t been able to do. It gives people in Huntington a chance to drive just a few minutes to see us play.
“Hopefully we’ll have some good weather in January and early February that allows us to get out there and take advantage of it to prepare for our season.”
Marshall has two games scheduled this season against West Virginia University, on March 18 at Appalachian Power Park in Charleston and on April 23 in Morgantown. Last season the two teams played a third game at Linda K. Epling Stadium in Beckley, but a date couldn’t be worked out for this season.
“We wanted to play a third game against West Virginia University there, but the only time (WVU) wanted to play there was in early March and the folks in Beckley didn’t think it would be good to play there that early,” Waggoner said. “So we’re only playing twice this year, once in Charleston and once in Morgantown, and we look forward to those games because of what they do to promote baseball in the state of West Virginia.
“Those games drew pretty well, especially the ones in Beckley and Morgantown that were played later in the season, when the weather was warmer, and playing in those kinds of atmospheres helps teams get ready for what it’s going to be like in hostile environments in your league or in tournament play.”
Marshall’s non-conference schedule also includes games at Ohio State – the former home of new Herd pitching coach Josh Newman – and midweek home-and-away matchups with Akron, Ohio and Eastern Kentucky. WVU Tech is set for a three-game tilt at the Kennedy Center in mid-April.
The Herd has no games on the slate for Beckley this year, but Waggoner is already working to remedy that in the future.
“Since we now have the Kennedy Center available for midweek games, we obviously take advantage of that rather than playing some of those games in Beckley,” he said. “But the Epling family has been great to us and we definitely want to work some things out in the future for the Herd to play down there.
“I’ve talked to Wake Forest about the possibility of meeting up to play there. To play someone like Virginia Tech might make sense if we could work it out, or other teams from Virginia or North Carolina, where fans from both teams would be able to go.
“It’s a great facility and the support has been great when we’ve been there and we’re going to work to make appearances there whether it’s against WVU or not.”