Matt Shortall made it no secret that his expectations have risen for his senior season as the UT Arlington baseball team’s leader.
“The last thing I want to do is play my final baseball game in Mobile, Alabama,” he said.
Coach Darin Thomas and the crowd of reporters at UTA’s media day got a laugh at that statement, but there was an overbearing sense of truth to it. Shortall, UTA’s All-American slugger, has been around long enough to help the Mavericks nab two conference championships and make an NCAA regional berth.
Simply losing in the conference tournament — held in Mobile, Ala. — just won’t cut it.
Shortall represents a Mavericks team eager to prove itself able to step onto any baseball field and come away a winner. And with what Thomas calls “the toughest schedule [his team has] played maybe in school history,” the Mavericks have plenty of opportunities to prove it when they begin their inaugural season in the Sun Belt Conference.
“No disrespect to the Southland [Conference] or the WAC because they’re very good baseball conferences, but this will be first time playing in a conference with a top 10 RPI, let alone top six,” Thomas said.
Four teams from the Sun Belt earned a trip to the NCAA regionals last season, and the Mavericks found themselves on the outside looking in despite sharing the WAC regular-season title. A semifinal loss in the conference tournament ended their season.
Even though the loss kept them from a second consecutive playoff berth, the Mavericks return seven starters and seven pitchers from last year’s team. That includes Shortall — who hit .362 with eight homers and 54 RBIs — and Brad Vachon, the rock of UTA’s rotation.
Thomas is tasked with replacing the middle of the field that shortstop Ryan Walker and center fielder Brandon Lawrence manned, but instead of bringing a new face to those critical spots, he has the luxury of shifting third baseman Travis Sibley over to short and left fielder Derek Miller to center.
“You want to be strong up the middle and be able to get a double play to get out of a jam,” Thomas said. “We’ll be able to do that.”
It’s a luxury the Mavericks are slowly finding themselves able to afford as their updated facilities begin taking shape. A new outfield wall will be ready by the Feb. 14 season opener, a new picnic area was installed and the new speaker system will make the game more enjoyable for fans. A new on-site clubhouse that will be ready for next season as well. Coupled with recent MLB draft success stories, Thomas is finding the talent level increasing each year.
That’s all well and good for Shortall, who does want the program to build on what his group of seniors have accomplished. But in talking about this season, he points to the unlikely Fresno State NCAA championship run in 2008 that no one saw coming.
“There’s no reason our team can’t be a team like that,” he said.