UNO arrived well ahead of schedule last year, as Ryan Keele’s dramatic walk-off homer against South Dakota State clinched the Summit League’s regular-season title on the final weekend of the league season.
But that was the Mavericks’ final weekend. They, even now, still have two years left before being eligible for the postseason as part of their transition to Division I.
“My biggest regret for these guys is that you play your season to play the postseason,” coach Bob Herold said Tuesday at the team’s media day, referring to the players who joined him at the podium. “I told them last year that we were the only team in the country, besides the national champions, to win our last game of the season.”
While UNO stayed home, South Dakota State — which finished second in the Summit — won the league’s postseason tournament and NCAA tournament berth. The Jackrabbits then lost narrow decisions to Oregon (3-2) and San Francisco (4-3 in 13 innings).
“Two one-run games, and two that South Dakota State could’ve won — and probably should’ve won,” Herold said. “There were some name schools they had a chance to beat. So our guys are aware that we just want to play the game the right way. If we play the game the right way, we’ll be fine against anybody. If we don’t, we won’t.”
The Mavs, who open the season Feb. 14 in Knoxville, Tenn., with games against Tennessee and Purdue, intend to play the game the right way.
“It’s got to start with pitching,” Herold said. “Pitching limits runs, and if you’ve got guys who can really pitch it, you don’t have to score as many runs.”
Sophomore Tyler Fox (6-2, 3.99 ERA), junior Zach Williamsen (4-1, 3.38) and senior Steven Schoonover (3-4, 4.68) are the headlining returning starters in the rotation.
Offensively, UNO will look for ways to replace league player of the year Keele (.385, six homers, 33 RBIs) and league batting champion Cory Buckley (.391).
“They were two outstanding players,” said Tyler Splichal, a four-year starter who hit .274 last season. “But we have a bunch of talent coming in and a lot of people sticking around.”
Clayton Taylor, who hit .352, Alex Mortensen (.318), Alex Schultz (.311) and Brett Bass (.301) give the Mavs four returning starters who hit better than .300 last season, and Cole Gruber hit .299.
UNO started 7-16 last year, but rebounded to finish 27-22 — including 20-6 in the Summit.
“I prefer to play a hard schedule,” Herold said. “And then when we go into conference, nobody looks so big and tough any more.”
Said senior Caleb Palensky: “There’s no reason we shouldn’t repeat this year.”