Western Michigan baseball finished its season at 23-17 in MAC play for its best regular season finish in the conference since 2006.
With no conference tournament, it was easy to feel disappointed in spite of the regular season success.
“I’ve never been so pleased, proud, and equally disappointed,” said head coach Billy Gernon.
In the summer of 2020, in the midst of a shutdown for all collegiate sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mid-American Conference announced a cancellation of several conference tournaments to save money. Baseball was one of the sports that lost that opportunity to the pandemic-related budget cuts.
This spring, the conference announced a return of tournaments for several sports that lost them for the 2020-21 year, and baseball will have a four-team tournament starting next season.
“When you make an announcement to cancel a tournament for four years and then, oh, magically it just reappears,” Gernon said. “It makes you wonder: what’s going on? What was the four-year thing? It’s just a really frustrating thing.”
The Broncos managed to stay in contention in spite of several injuries to key players. The most obvious injury issue was D1Baseball’s preseason MAC Player of the Year Blake Dunn, who made just 20 starts in WMU’s 50 games. The injury issues also included Jack Huisman, who had the third-lowest ERA on the team, not being able to pitch in the Broncos’ last four series.
Easton Sikorski managed to lead WMU in innings pitched in spite of missing two series early on in MAC play due to a hamstring injury. The Broncos had just three players who played all 50 games, and all three earned All-MAC honors.
“(People) don’t want to hear about all the injuries,” Gernon said. “But nobody knows my team better than I do. This is the best team that I’ve had, probably, since I’ve been a coach. We were contending until the last weekend, and we were contending without a full roster.”
Drew Devine and Connor Charping became the first pair of Broncos to earn first team All-MAC honors in the same year since 2008 when Chris Lewis, Ethan Hollingsworth and Brian Stroud were all first team all-conference honorees.
“To get first team (honors) in this league is difficult to do, and to get first team in this league this year was even harder,” Gernon said. “There (were) a lot of teams that had older players. Sometimes in sports, your veteran guys that have been there and done that can perform better than younger guys with more talent.”
Devine hit .303 with 14 doubles, five home runs, 36 walks, 31 runs, 29 RBI and a .903 OPS. He finished in the top 10 in the conference in doubles and walks. Charping hit .355 with nine doubles, three home runs, 24 walks, 42 runs, 35 RBI and a .911 OPS while setting the WMU single-season stolen bases record with 32. He ranked top-10 in the MAC in batting average, on-base percentage, runs, hits, and stolen bases, in which he led the conference.
In addition to the pair of first team honorees, Sean O’Keefe was the second team All-MAC first baseman behind MAC Player of the Year Chris Meyers of Toledo. Jimmy Allen was also named to the All-MAC defensive team at third base.
O’Keefe hit .310 with 14 doubles, eight home runs, eight walks, 30 runs and 43 RBI. He finished in the top 10 in the MAC in doubles, home runs and RBI. After starting the season playing mostly right field, Allen shifted to third base where he committed just one error. Having one error in right field as well, he finished the year with a .978 fielding percentage.
Dunn, after having interest from MLB teams but going undrafted in last year’s five-round draft, is preparing for the draft which will take place July 11-13 this year. Devine is trying to find his way to professional baseball as well, with a less clear picture in a 20-round draft than what could have been with a 40-round draft that MLB used before 2020.
“Blake has been invited to over half a dozen pre-draft workouts,” Gernon said. “Reports are getting back to me that he’s done extremely well in these invite-only pre-draft workouts. I think it’s inevitable that someone’s going to sign him, I think what they’re wanting to see is that Blake Dunn is healthy.”
On Devine, Gernon added: “I’m continuing to communicate with Drew and trying to find an opportunity for him because the passion is still burning for him to play and the ability, I think, is there to do so. With the draft coming in mid-July, Drew could go, you just never know.”
After having 36 players on this year’s roster, WMU only brought in two freshmen to bring the roster back down to a more manageable number. In spite of the small size, Gernon still believes the incoming recruiting class can make an impact.
“Even though we’re not bringing but two players in, they’re impact players,” Gernon said. “I like the roster at 30-31 players… all these guys work hard, all these guys do their jobs in the classroom… I’ve got the roster managed back where I want it and there will still be fierce competition in the fall for guys to earn positions and playing time.”