ARLINGTON — On a night when Nolan Ryan sat in front of the UT Arlington faithful and told baseball stories, the core of last season’s Western Athletic Conference championship team was handed championship rings and inspiring words.The words flowed at UTA’s First Pitch Banquet on Friday night at Rangers Ballpark.With major league alumni in attendance, UTA celebrated the beginning of another season for a team that’s put eight former players on major league rosters since 2002.“It’s impressive how many [Mavericks] get into the majors and have a substantial impact on the game,” Ryan said. “We’ve got seven returning pitchers and seven returning position players from that team last year,” coach Darin Thomas said.“That doesn’t guarantee anything in the spring. I told our guys today, ‘This is probably the toughest schedule we’ve ever had.’ ”Just as he has every season as head coach, Thomas has scheduled some tough nonconference games. The Mavericks will play Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor in midweek games this season.Two of those will be played at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.UTA joins a challenging new conference.As members of the Sun Belt Conference, a conference that had the fifth-best conference RPI in college baseball last year, the Mavericks will face better teams than they did in the Southland Conference and the WAC.But the Mavericks picked a good year to make the jump, bringing back nearly all of last season’s starting lineup, their top pitcher and their top hitter, preseason All-American slugger Matt Shortall.Shortall said this season’s team is more confident than any other he’s seen since he arrived four years ago, and other teams around the area are taking notice of the way they play.“Everyone knows we’re not a blow-over game anymore,” he said. “They know that we’re going to punch them in the mouth.”If the veteran-laden Mavericks can play up to their self-imposed expectations, they’ll find themselves back in the mix for a third championship in as many years.That would mean another trip to the NCAA regionals and a chance for UTA to take the next step on the diamond instead of the draft.
Notable UTA games
Feb. 14 vs. Stephen F. Austin (season opener)
Feb. 25 at TCU