Before the season began, UT Arlington All-American Matt Shortall made one thing clear — he did not want his college baseball career to come to a close in Mobile, Ala.
Now it’s do-or-die for Shortall and the Mavericks, who enter the Sun Belt Conference tournament needing to win it all to advance to the NCAA regionals. The journey begins against the host team, South Alabama (22-31, 11-18), at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Stanky Field in Mobile.
Even though the Mavericks (30-25, 19-11) pulled off a season-saving run over the last two months that earned them the tournament’s No. 2 seed, there’s no guarantee anything less than a championship gets them to the NCAA regionals.
There’s an outside chance the NCAA selection committee would reward the Mavericks for their 25-11 run since March 16, but the 5-14 hole UTA started the year in may be too much to overcome.
That all changes if the red-hot Mavericks, winners of seven straight and 14 of their last 16 games, win this week’s tournament. That would mean an automatic bid and keep their Omaha dream alive.
“A lot of teams would have folded up and started turning on each other, but that’s not us,” Shortall said. “We decided we were going to have to stick it out together, and everyone started doing their jobs. When you’re losing, you’ve got to stay together.”
The senior slugger who had to call UTA coaches from a McDonald’s in Shreveport to ask if he could play for them, serves as the No. 3 hitter in UTA’s nationally ranked lineup. He’s hitting .351 with nine homers and 50 RBIs and was only below .300 for two games in the first week of the season.
The elephant in the room is Louisiana-Lafayette (49-7, 26-4), ranked No. 2 in the USA Today coaches’ poll and a lock to host an NCAA regional. The Mavericks avoided that side of the bracket and wouldn’t face the Rajin’ Cajuns until the championship round, but the experience of facing them last month — and beating them — sparked UTA’s current 14-2 run.
“They’re a once-in-a-decade team,” Shortall said. “We learned how to win games when we’re not playing very well. We pride ourselves on not being too far off from that team.”
The Mavericks have been a good road team this season, going 12-10 away from home, so playing Wednesday’s prime-time game against host South Alabama (22-31, 11-18) shouldn’t be too daunting.
But being a top-two seed doesn’t mean anything. Since 2008, only once has the tournament-winning team been higher than a No. 4 seed.
For Shortall and UTA to play on, they’ll need to outlast a tough baseball conference. But if this season has proven anything, it’s that it isn’t wise to count the Mavericks out.
Players of the week
Senior catcher Greg McCall was the Sun Belt player of the week after homering twice and driving in eight of UTA’s 13 runs in a two-game sweep of Texas State.
Senior right hander Brad Vachon struck out a season-high nine Texas State batters in seven shutout innings to earn Sun Belt pitcher of the week.
2014 Sun Belt tournament
Stanky Field, Mobile, Ala.
Wednesday’s games (double-elimination)• No. 4 Texas State vs. No. 5 WKU, 9 a.m.
• No. 1 UL Lafayette vs. No. 8 UL Monroe, 12:30 p.m.
• No. 3 Arkansas State vs. No. 6 Troy, 4 p.m.
• No. 2 UT Arlington vs. No. 7 South Alabama, 7:30 p.m.