Despite preseason projections to finish in last place, UNO’s expectations were to compete for a Summit League baseball championship in its first season in the conference.
And while it was only one weekend, a 4-0 start against Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne and Oakland has the Mavericks feeling pretty good about their chances of reaching those lofty heights.
“Our team goal was to win the regular season — that’s about all we can do,” said third baseman Tyler Splichal, acknowledging that as a team transitioning to Division I, the Mavs can’t play in the postseason until 2016. “But (last weekend) puts our expectations into reality.
“At the beginning of the year, we were kind of down on ourselves and we had to find out who we were. Now that we have four Summit victories, everyone can kind of relax some more and we can get better from here.”
Coach Bob Herold puts some of the blame on himself for UNO’s slow start. Unable to find a game for the second weekend of the season, Herold decided to scrap a scheduled series the first weekend of the season rather than starting and stopping the season.
So the Mavs, Herold said, were playing catch-up when opening the season two weeks behind everyone else.
“Usually the first couple of weeks of the season, you’re hitting guys and walking guys — but when the teams you’re playing are going through that, too, maybe you win half of those games,” Herold said. “But the teams we were playing had already gone through that, so next thing you know, we’re 0-6.”
The Mavs are 10-9 since, including the 4-0 start in league play that gives them a two-game lead over league favorite North Dakota State as well as South Dakota State and Oakland.
A four-game road series with Western Illinois (7-21 overall, 1-3 Summit) awaits this weekend.
But first UNO continues its homestand with nonconference midweek games Tuesday night and Wednesday night at 6 against Air Force (9-21) and Kansas State (23-10). The Mavs split at Air Force three weeks ago, losing 2-0 and winning 11-10, then lost at Kansas State 3-2 last week.
Air Force is expected to start Alex Baker, who pitched 723 scoreless innings in the first meeting. UNO had the bases loaded in the ninth inning before losing at Kansas State.
“We’re more confident than we were the last time we played K-State — that’s a Big 12 team and you’re a little nervous — but losing 3-2 we feel like we can win if we put our minds to it,” Splichal said. “And Air Force, we weren’t really intimidated playing out there. It’ll be nice playing them without having a long road trip.”
Last year, of course, was a blur of long road trips for UNO. The Mavs’ scheduling disadvantage coincided with an unending string of injuries, including a broken thumb that shut down Splichal after 14 games.
Splichal, who said he was able to get a medical redshirt and maintain his junior status, took a while to get into a hitting rhythm again after being unable to do any baseball activities until the fall.
The Bellevue East product went 7 for 14 over the weekend to raise his average to .289. During his Mav career, which included a .410 mark while earning Division II MIAA freshman of the year honors in 2010, Splichal has hit .348.
“He’s got his stroke back,” Herold said. “And he’s a machine on defense. If we were all as good as Splichal defensively, we’d be in great shape.”
After last weekend, though, UNO actually is in great shape.
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