Surprising freshman Weiss lifted Cinderella Michigan
Rarely does homegrown prep baseball talent sign outside of Oregon, let alone the west coast.
One major exception: 2018 Oregon Gatorade Player of the Year Willie Weiss — with Scappoose roots and a diploma from of Westview High — signed with the University of Michigan last year to continue his baseball career.
"Michigan had everything," Weiss said this summer. "I went on a visit there and went to a football game and just fell in love with the coaching staff, the campus and everything. I got the best of athletics and academics."
In college basketball and football, top players can be lured away from home by the national spotlight and powerhouse title contenders. College baseball is less about money and more about development.
When Weiss arrived on the campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, coaches were expecting someone who could progress under their direction into a solid relief pitcher, someone with a fastball registering from 87 to 91 miles per hour.
Instead, Weiss hit 94-95 mph with his fastball and boasted a separating downward action slider.
"We were pleasantly surprised when he got here," Michigan pitching coach Chris Fetter said. "He has a really impressive arm, but more importantly, he is a really impressive kid.
"He's a fierce competitor ... he's not a man of many words, but when he speaks, it carries weight and his teammates really respect him."
Weiss quickly assumed the closer role. He also earned a spot on the Perfect Game Freshman All-America Team and the all-Big Ten Freshman Team with his 2.97 ERA, nine saves and 50 strikeouts in 39.1 innings pitched.
"I wasn't really sure what to expect," said Weiss, who was back in the Portland area this summer. "I came out in the fall and just did what I could ... I had a pretty good role this year."
Although the saves didn't always come in the easiest fashion, the 6-3, 205-pounder came through when the Wolverines needed him most.
Weiss continued to impress his teammates and coaches with late-game heroics, and none were bigger than his performance at No. 2-ranked UCLA on March 8.
He entered in the seventh inning holding a 6-2 lead. The Bruins took advantage of the freshman, scoring three runs.
Rather than exit the game on a low point, however, Weiss was sent back to the mound — and retired six of seven batters in the eighth and ninth to earn the three-inning save.
"That created confidence that carried for a big portion of the season," Fetter said.
The win wasn't just a confidence booster for Weiss. It also was a major résumé booster for the Wolverines, who wound up making the NCAA Tournament as a bubble team.
The first test was a trip to Oregon State for the Corvallis regional, a homecoming of sorts for Weiss.
The Wolverines made it through the regional, beating No. 22 Creighton 6-0 and Cincinnati 10-4, then bouncing back from an 11-7 loss to Creighton by beating the Bluejays 17-6.
So it was on to the super regional and a series with now No. 1 UCLA. And the Wolverines went 2-1 in Los Angeles (3-2 win, 5-4 loss in 12 innings, 4-2 win) to get to the final eight and the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
In the CWS, Michigan knocked off No. 8 Texas Tech 5-3, Florida State 2-0 and Texas Tech 15-3 — earning a spot in the national finals against No. 2 Vanderbilt.
The Wolverines won the best-of-three finals opener 7-4, but Vanderbilt came back with victories of 4-1 and 8-2 to claim the NCAA Division I championship.
Weiss threw a strong 1.1 scoreless innings in the 4-1 loss. That highly anticipated moment will be one he remembers for a lifetime.
Going to the CWS had been "a dream of mine ever since I was a kid," Weiss said. "To actually go there, I'm still in shock. ... We came up a little short, but it was awesome to get there. I had a blast."
Michigan (16-7 and second in the Big Ten) finished 50-22 overall — the first 50-win season for the Wolverines since 1987. The trip to the College World Series was the eighth in Wolverines history, and it was the third time Michigan had been in the finals.
With the Cinderella 2019 season over and the focus shifted to 2020, Michigan will need to replace two crucial players.
Two Michigan pitchers — Tommy Henry (19 starts) and Karl Kauffman (20 starts) — were picked in the 2019 MLB draft this year. Henry wound up playing this summer for the Single-A Hillsboro Hops.
The 2020 Wolverines will return just one starter who made more than five starts last season: junior-to-be Jeff Criswell (17 starts). Criswell was named to the all-Big Ten team last season as Michigan's pitching staff finished 10th in the country, first in the conference in ERA (3.46) and seventh nationally in hits allowed per game (7.44).
This gives Weiss, who Fetter sees as a "starter in the future," the perfect opportunity to earn a weekend starter role.
In order to do that, Weiss will need to develop a more consistent changeup. As a reliever, his off-speed pitch took a back seat to his more refined fastball and slider. In the rotation, however, Weiss will need a third pitch to keep hitters off-balance three times through the order.
After a strong freshman season and with a potential move to the regular rotation, the next step for Weiss could have been a summer in a top collegiate league.
But because Weiss has been pitching competitively since the start of 2018, the Wolverines and Weiss agreed the best way for him to prepare for 2020 would be to focus on lifting weights and resting his arm.
"I think that's going to help him," Fetter said. "I'm happy he competed his tail off in a big role. Just being able to shut him down for the summer will pay huge dividends going forward."
While in Portland over the summer, Weiss had one familiar Ann Arbor face nearby in Henry, who was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the second round.
Henry texted Weiss when he first arrived in Portland, and Weiss came out to watch him with the Northwest League Hops at Ron Tonkin Field.
The two were roommates on the road for Michigan, and Henry was always there to help Weiss when he needed it. Although Henry has left the Wolverines, he said he will continue to root on his former teammate.
"Willie had high expectations just because of the kind of kid he was coming out of high school. I think for everyone, he exceeded those," Henry said. "I'm really excited to see what's in his future, not only at Michigan but beyond that, because he has all the talent in the world.
"He's a good kid with a good head on his shoulders. It was really cool and fun getting to know him."
Regardless of whether Weiss earns a starting role next season or beyond, Michigan has found an important piece for its baseball team.
"He's earned a ton of respect from his teammates just due to his work ethic and how he handles himself," Fetter said. "He just needs to continue to attack his work with the same mentality and professionalism he has to this point."
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