Hard Works Pays Off for WVU's Zitel - WVU Football, WVU Basketball, News - Mountaineer Sports

Hard Works Pays Off for WVU's Zitel

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Andrew Zitel looks on from the dugout during a WVU win over Penn State at PNC Park. (PHOTO: Geoff Coyle) Andrew Zitel looks on from the dugout during a WVU win over Penn State at PNC Park. (PHOTO: Geoff Coyle)
MORGANTOWN -

Saturday’s view was new to Andrew Zitel. It wasn’t like the other times.

The West Virginia University baseball team has connected on a total of 42 home runs this season. Zitel watched each of the first 41 sail out of the ballpark and waited for his teammates to return to the dugout to celebrate.

The 42nd home run of the season was different. It was Zitel’s.

With two outs and one on base in the bottom of the eighth inning, the redshirt sophomore turned on a Taylor Goodwin pitch and sent it straight from his bat to the left field foul pole. His first career homer was a two-run blast of the no-doubter variety.

“Finally,” Zitel said after the 15-5 win over Gardner-Webb. “I was just thinking get the ball in play, don’t do too much, and I guess it paid off.”

For the first time since he joined the Mountaineers in the 2015 season, Zitel was the one trotting the 360 feet back to home plate.

“It was unreal,” Zitel said. “I haven’t felt anything like that since, well, it’s been a while. Like high school. My team is great. I couldn’t pick a better group of guys to round third and come home to. No matter who it is, everybody has your back on this team and it’s just a great team. We’re all brothers and we all love each other.”

Zitel doesn’t have to think too far back to find a time when Saturday’s home run would have seemed unlikely. The summer after his true freshman season with the Mountaineers, head coach Randy Mazey pulled Zitel aside and told him that if he wanted to play college baseball, he may want to consider a change of scenery.

It was a harsh blow to a player who grew up idolizing some of the athletes who chose WVU for their collegiate careers. You see, Zitel’s older brother, PJ, began working as a student-manager for the Mountaineers football team when Andrew was in first grade. He spent the next five years traveling from his home state of New Jersey down to Morgantown to cheer on a University that has now become his home.

You can forgive him, then, for not wanting to give up on this dream of playing baseball as a Mountaineer after just one season as a walk-on with the program.

If he wanted to stick around, he would have to prove to Mazey and to the rest of his teammates and coaches that he deserved his place on the roster and that if he were called upon, he would answer that call.

“Once that happened, I just started to relax more,” Zitel said. “Once he said you might want to look for another place to go, I was kind of shocked. But at the same time, I just said calm down, go out there and have fun. Do what you did before you got here, before I put all this pressure on myself.”

There is no denying that Zitel is having fun. All you have to do is turn your attention to him prior to first pitch, always in the middle of some game next to the dugout, getting the team loose for the day’s action. Or pry your eyes away from the diamond when the Mountaineers get a big hit and check out the excitement he exhibits when one of his teammates finds success.

It isn’t always the role he envisioned for himself when he was playing baseball on youth fields in New Jersey, but it is certainly a role that is appreciated by those around him.

“That makes a difference,” Mazey said of bench players bringing energy in the dugout. “They’ve been there the whole season to be the first guys on the top step when a guy scores around to give him a high five or whatever. The team responds to that as much as they do a guy in the lineup getting a hit, so kudos to those guys for keeping the dugout in these games.”

When Mazey has a chance to reward those players, he takes advantage of the opportunity. It is up to Zitel to do the same. Zitel’s head coach intends to use the moment as a lesson for the rest of his team.

“If you keep working, good things can happen to you,” Mazey said. “This game has a way of rewarding stuff like that. If you don’t work, if you pout, if you get down on yourself, it has a way of keeping you down. Hopefully that’ll be a good lesson to everybody else.”

With his parents and his older brother in town for the weekend, Zitel stepped up and delivered. The game broadcast showed Chase Illig rounding third with Zitel on his heels before the camera turned to his family in the stands. There was big brother PJ, the one who helped turn Zitel into a Mountaineer fan all those years ago, waving his ball cap while his mother jumped up and down in celebration of the best early Mother’s Day gift she could have hoped for. 

And at the end of the base path, there was the rest of his team, waiting to welcome Zitel back to the dugout in the same manner that he had welcomed them so many times before.

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