When Zach Williamsen takes the mound Saturday, everything could already be decided.
It's also possible everything — or at least a share of everything — could still be in play.
UNO's surprising bid for a Summit League regular-season baseball championship in its first season in the league wraps up this weekend when South Dakota State visits for a four-game series at the Ballpark at Boys Town.
The Mavericks (24-21, 17-5 Summit) have a two-game lead on South Dakota State (30-18, 15-7).
UNO needs just one win to clinch a share of the title and two to win it outright.
The series includes Thursday's 2 p.m. game, Friday's 1 p.m. doubleheader and the 1 p.m. Saturday game that Williamsen, a third-year sophomore from Millard West, will start.
“Everyone wants to be the guy out there when a championship is on the line,” Williamsen said. “So if that's the case, it would be a cool experience and I would love the opportunity. But that said, it'd be a lot better if we could win two of the first three and have it wrapped up before then. In one game, who knows what can happen?
“Either way, I know it's not going to change my mindset.”
Williamsen, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound right-hander, is 3-1 with a 3.40 ERA in 10 games, seven of them starts. Perhaps the Mavs' hardest thrower, he's struck out 37 in 50 1/3 innings and held opponents to a .216 batting average.
“We thought he'd have a good year,” UNO coach Bob Herold said. “He's gotten better and better and will probably continue to do that. He came here throwing 82 to 83 (mph), then went to 84 to 86 and now he's at 88 to 89.”
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Like Williamsen's fastball over the course of three years, UNO has made an in-season progression — the Mavs were picked to finish last in the six-team Summit. But expectations inside the program were high from the start.
“I think everyone knew we had the capability of being where we are,” Williamsen said. “This is kind of where we saw ourselves.”
The Mavs, who started their year late to avoid having an early-season gap of two weeks without a game, lost their first six games and seven of their first eight. They were 6-15, but then went 8-0 to open Summit League play.
After a nonconference loss, UNO bounced back with another Summit win to get to 9-0. South Dakota State, which had a home series with UNO canceled because of weather, has cut the lead to two games heading into the final weekend.
“We scheduled pretty tough in the preseason, and you hope it will help you,” said Herold, whose team went 5-9 against Creighton, Wichita State, Kansas State, Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa and Penn State. “You see better pitching and guys who hit the ball further — sometimes they're better than the guys in your league and sometimes they're not.
“Playing teams like that, you don't get by as easily making mistakes. You've got to play the game right most of the time to give yourself a chance to win. You want to play someone who has a chance to beat you — if you're scheduling just for your record early, then your record is going to suffer at the end of the year.”
Williamsen has become a key cog in a UNO rotation that also includes freshman Tyler Fox (5-2, 4.56 ERA), senior Matt Tew (3-5, 4.91) and junior Steven Schoonover (3-3, 3.86).
Fox starts Thursday, with Tew and Schoonover taking the mound for Friday's doubleheader.
UNO also has an impressive four-man group in its everyday lineup. Seniors Ryan Keele (.373) and Cory Buckley (.357), redshirt freshman Clayton Taylor (.352) and sophomore Alex Mortensen (.337) are the top four hitters in the Summit.
Herold said he's been impressed by the pitching staffs the Mavs have seen in the Summit, with every team seemingly having at least two quality starters.
Because of the earlier cancellation, the Mavs don't know what to expect from SDSU rotation headliners Layne Somsen (4-3, 1.54 ERA), Stephen Bougher (7-1, 2.77) and Adam Bray (6-2, 3.07). Bougher, from Papillion-La Vista South, and Bray are 1-2 in wins in the Summit. Somsen is second in ERA, while Bougher is fourth and Bray fifth.
But the Jackrabbits haven't seen UNO's pitching staff either.
“I like seeing a team for the first time, because sometimes the less I know about hitters the better it is for me,” Williamsen said. “Then I just focus on myself instead of on their strengths and weaknesses.”
UNO's season comes to an end this weekend regardless of the outcome, while South Dakota State moves on as the favorite to earn the Summit's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. UNO is ineligible for the postseason while transitioning to Division I — the Mavs won't be eligible until 2016.
“It kind of sucks, to be honest, but we knew going in that was going to be the case,” Williamsen said. “We could have been in position to be a No. 1 seed with a shot at making the regional. But this (the regular season) was the one thing we could control. And I think the satisfaction of accomplishing what we set out to do would trump any disappointment we might have.”
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