Creighton baseball players had the typical reaction to learning that they had been picked seventh in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll.
The slotting will provide plenty of motivation to prove the coaches wrong. At the same time, if any team knows how little preseason polls mean, it’s the Bluejays.
Stocked with many of the players who helped them earn a spot in the 2011 NCAA tournament, the Bluejays were picked second in the 2012 preseason poll. They finished eighth in the regular season before a late surge earned them the Valley tournament title and a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
That experience leaves this season’s team with the proper perspective.
“We’ll use being picked seventh for motivation but we also know that it’s not really important,” outfielder Mike Gerber said. “My freshman year, we were picked fifth or sixth and we finished first. Last year, we were picked second, and we obviously weren’t as good as where we were picked.
“We just have to take it as a grain of salt.”
Chances are, it will be a pretty big grain when the Bluejays want it to be. Creighton coach Ed Servais said he discussed the poll with his players before a recent practice. He’ll likely bring it up again as the Feb. 15 start of the season gets closer.
At the same time, Servais said, the Valley coaches did the Bluejays a favor by picking them low.
“We’ve always done better when we’ve had this kind of underdog mentality,” Servais said. “That’s how we play and that’s kind of how I’ve always coached. I think some of our players perform better in that situation.
“We obviously didn’t do very well when we were voted as a front-runner last season. We used that chip-on-the-shoulder mentality late in the season last year to play as well as we did in the tournament and beyond. We’re OK with that.”
On paper, Creighton has plenty of question marks that contributed to being picked as an also-ran. The Bluejays have five position-playing starters back but lost pitchers who accounted for 23 of the team’s 28 wins and all eight of its saves.
The three position-playing starters not back were the team’s top three hitters last season — first baseman Nick Judkins (.313), third baseman Chance Ross (.301) and catcher Anthony Bemboom (.270). That trio also accounted for six of the team’s 16 homers and 108 RBIs.
Shortstop Alex Staehely is a four-year starter, while Gerber returns to anchor the outfield in his third season of starting in center. Brad McKewon and Brennan Murphy will flank Gerber in the outfield, and the Bluejays have Jake Peter back at second base. Peter also will see some time on the mound.
Creighton’s most experienced returning pitchers are senior Mark Winkelman, a fixture in the bullpen the past three seasons, and Nick Musec, who could go from being a midweek performer to a member of the weekend rotation.
Servais was encouraged by the showing of several young pitchers during fall practice. He also liked the progress made by some of the new position players, but said it’s the veterans who ultimately could shape the fortunes of this season’s team.
“A lot of people believe that it’s going to come down to our new players,” Servais said. “I think it’s going to come down to how much improvement our returning players make.
“None of our players were picked to the preseason all-conference. I think we have guys that are grossly underestimated in the talent that they bring. Now, they all need to get better, and the challenge for our coaching staff is to get them better.”
Staehely said that shouldn’t be a problem. The struggles the Bluejays went through last season have kept the veterans working to improve.
“We have guys that have won two championships, but we want it just as much this year,” he said. “We can’t get complacent, and we just have to keep looking forward. We’re going to run into struggles.
“We learned last year not to press and to keep working hard. If we do that, we’ll get out of the struggles as opposed to letting them hang around all season.”
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