A faster, more aggressive offense is on the way this season for the Wichita State baseball team, or at least that’s the plan.
A year after finishing with just 36 stolen bases, second to last among teams in the American Athletic Conference, the Shockers believe a handful of newcomers and a new philosophy under interim head coach Loren Hibbs will drive change.
WSU opens its 2023 season on Friday with a weekend series at Long Beach State. Clark Candiotti, a college junior transfer, will start Friday’s season opener at 8pm, while southpaw Payton Tolle is scheduled for Saturday’s game at 8pm and Derby native Grant Adler, another transfer to the college junior, will pitch Sunday’s 3 pm finale. Friday and Sunday games will be streamed on ESPN+.
“The more athletic we can be, I think the better off we’ll end up being in the long run,” Hibbs said.
When the Shockers have looked to improve their athleticism, they feel like they hit the jackpot with Kyte McDonald, who is expected to start the season in center field.
The San Antonio native owns his high school 100m dash record, fast enough to earn a scholarship offer to run track at Duke, and was a standout running back on the football field. These two sports help describe the way McDonald plays baseball: track-star speed with the aggression of a running back.
“He’d run through the wall if you asked him to,” Hibbs said. “It’s like the Energizer Bunny, always going 100 mph.”
However, McDonald’s isn’t just a sprinter on the diamond. Coming out of high school he earned a grade of 9 from Perfect Game, which designated him a “top-notch college prospect.” He signed with Mississippi State and was a redshirt freshman on his 2021 National Championship team, hitting .389 in 12 games.
Seeking a larger role, he transferred to Alvin Community College in Texas, where he hit .326 with 16 extra-base hits, including seven home runs, stole 17 bases, drove in 28 runs, and struck out 56 He chose WSU because he liked the coaching staff, but also because he saw an opportunity to help right away.
“I’m looking forward to a real opportunity to make an impact with this team,” McDonald said. “We have a great group of guys and the coaches are fantastic. I’m really happy to have the opportunity to play at this level again. I think we have a really good chance to win a lot of games this year.”
McDonald says there’s still a part of him that lacks touch on the football field, but he thinks those experiences on the gridiron made him a better baseball player.
“I think the physicality and aggression definitely translated to baseball,” McDonald said. “I played small slot catcher in high school and that helped me with angles and tracking baseballs in the air in the outfield. And then when I’m tracking a ball against the wall, it’s like a safety that comes over. So there are a lot of similar sentiments out there.
When McDonald’s on base, he’s quick and tenacious, a combination that makes him a threat as a first batter. But Hibbs and the WSU coaching staff worked with the 5-foot-10 junior to channel those qualities at just the right moment.
“As much as aggression and fast play is an asset, it’s also my biggest weakness,” McDonald said. “Sometimes I definitely need to slow down, especially at the plate.”
“I brought him in a few days ago and we talked about him sometimes just needing to breathe and get himself under control,” Hibbs said. “We teach a lot about how to get them to breathe right and focus on the more important things. We have to do what we can as coaches to put these guys in a good place where they can focus and perform.
No player returning from the WSU roster had more than five stolen bases last season, but the Shockers feel there is untapped potential with players like Brock Rodden, Chuck Ingram, Jordan Rogers and Seth Stroh on the basepaths. Newcomers like McDonald, freshman center infield Jack Little, and freshman outfielder Jaden Gustafson, a Maize native, could also help accelerate things for WSU.
“You know you can’t steal before, but when the opportunity is presented to us, we will do everything we can to play much faster this year,” said Hibbs. “We will try to dial in and be very aggressive and try to use the run game as much as possible and use the hit and run game as much as possible to move the defence.
“We also like doubles and home runs, and we have guys who can do those things, but college baseball is all about being physical in the middle of your order and also being very athletic. Those are the teams that play until June. We have to build that kind of team and program here. We are on the right track.”