It never hurts to have a scout who knows the lay of the land when one sets out to do some pioneering.
Tom Lipari fits that role for Creighton's baseball program when it moves to the new Big East next season. Lipari, the Bluejays' pitching coach, spent the previous two seasons at Pittsburgh of the Big East.
He's been to the launching pad at Georgetown. He's seen St. John's when it was playing at an elite level. He knows his pitchers are going to love Villanova's park. And he'll tell the players to strap it up before they get ready to take on an always scrappy Seton Hall bunch.
“It's going to be nice to have Tom around,” Creighton coach Ed Servais said. “He'll know a little about what we're getting into.”
And it likely won't be the cakewalk some outsiders think might be in store for the Bluejays as they move over from the Missouri Valley. In addition to Creighton, the new Big East is adding Xavier and Butler from the Atlantic 10.
On the surface, the new league will have its share of schools that traditionally have considered baseball an afterthought and have experienced little success in the sport on the national level.
Georgetown has never played in the NCAA tournament, while Butler and Xavier have one appearance apiece. Villanova has made the tournament just twice since the NCAA abandoned the old regional format in the late 1980s.
The new conference obviously won't be challenging the SEC or the Pac-12 for college baseball supremacy, but Lipari believes it also won't be a league where maybe a Creighton or a St. John's stand head and shoulders above the rest.
“I understand the perception that some people might have that it's going to be St. John's and us,” Lipari said. “But it's not going to be that easy. Those other schools aren't going to lay down. They're going to battle.
“There are not going to be gimmes in the new league. I know that's the perception, but teams like Villanova and Georgetown are capable of beating you if you're not ready to play.”
Servais, who has taken the Bluejays to the NCAA tournament four times in the past eight seasons, also isn't buying any notions that Creighton is falling into a situation where it can dominate the new league.
“I think I know baseball, and what makes this such an interesting game is that the most talented team doesn't always win,” Servais said. “People can make adjustments. They're going to work hard to put themselves in a position to be reckoned with.
“People can assume anything they want but I prefer to go through this a time or two before making mine.”
Servais sees similarities to what the ground floor of the new league will be like and what he experienced when he first came to Creighton 16 seasons ago as an assistant coach. He believes Creighton, with its big-time facilities, can be an example for some of the other schools in the new league.
“I hope that we are seen as one of the leading programs in the league, and that when people see our facilities here, they'll be impressed,” he said. “We have all the amenities you need to compete in Division I baseball.
“I hope it makes other schools look at their own baseball situations, just as the rest of us in the Valley had to look at Wichita State when I first got here. What Wichita was doing forced all of us to decide what we could do differently in order to compete with them.”
In playing its home games at the home of the College World Series, Creighton definitely has an edge in facilities over the rest of the league. Xavier and Butler play their games at on-campus facilities that seat 500. Georgetown's home park is an off-campus city facility that might not be as nice as some high school parks in this area.
Lipari chuckled when asked how a Georgetown or a Butler player might react the first time he sets foot in TD Ameritrade Park.
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“The first time anyone comes to that park is an awesome experience,” he said. “But I don't think it's going to floor those kids. The kids from the Big East have played at Louisville and Notre Dame and a lot of other nice facilities.
“The thing about those East Coast kids are that they are tough and hardnosed. They play intense and aggressive no matter where they're playing.”
There are plenty of issues to address before competition actually begins on the diamond next season. Coaches in some of the new league's other sports have already had conference calls to hash out some of their concerns.
Perhaps because spring sports have more lead time, the baseball coaches are just getting around to having a conference call next week. Servais said he's eager to talk to his new peers to get their ideas on some format issues.
Servais said he will push to play three-game league series and a conference tournament. He prefers the three-game series based on his experience of when the Valley once played four-game weekend series.
Four-game series can leave teams short of pitching for midweek games, which could become even more important in building résumés for at-large bids to the NCAA tournament.
“We found that our conference RPI actually went up after we went to three-game series,” Servais said. “And I'm strongly in favor of a conference tournament. It's a reward for the players to give them a chance to play in a tournament with a postgame feel to it.
“And as we showed last season, it's an opportunity for teams that have scuffled in the regular season. It keeps guys working hard, knowing that if they didn't play well during the regular season that they still have a chance at the end. I'll fight hard for a conference tournament.”
The move to the new league won't alter Creighton's annual goal of wanting to play in June.
“Conference affiliation won't change our mindset,” Servais said. “It might take us a year or two to figure this thing out but we're ready to get after it.”
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