When the UT Arlington baseball team stumbled out of the gate last season, winning just five of its first 20 games, it appeared their preseason expectations of winning the Sun Belt were sorely misguided.
But even though they sunk 10 games below .500, the Mavericks won 28 of their last 39 games and stormed into a Sun Belt championship matchup with UL Lafayette, the No. 1 team in the nation. They fell a game short of the NCAA Tournament with a 6-5 loss to the Ragin’ Cajuns, but the season that began a disappointment nearly earned a place in UTA lore.
“You never forget a game like that,” shortstop Travis Sibley said. “As good as we were last year, this is going to be the year that really builds the program.”
It’s a strange thing to hear considering UTA needs to replace 35 of last season’s 48 home runs. The program continues to push players into the minor league system, but from a year-to-year standpoint, there’s a never-ending need for replacements. After a record six Mavericks were picked in the Major League draft, this year’s incoming class became even more important.
Replacing that production won’t come easy, but coach Darin Thomas believes there are good players on the roster just waiting for an opportunity. They’ll get that chance when the Mavericks open the season Friday against Missouri State in Nacogdoches.
“I like our new guys,” Thomas said. “Every year people step up and give you better years than you expect. We’ll find a way.”
The entire UTA infield returns from last season, which will help an inexperienced pitching staff adjust to the rigors of the Division I schedule. Second baseman Darien McLemore earned preseason All-Sun Belt honors after hitting .301 last season.
The pitching staff will be a work in progress as the season moves along. There’s no bonafide ace to carry the torch from Opening Day through the conference tournament. Last year’s closer Chad Nack will open the season as the top starter, but Thomas knows it’s an evolving process.
“We laugh about it every year, our Opening Day starter usually isn’t our No. 1 at the end of the year,” Thomas said. “I’ve done this for 25 years in college and that light comes on at different times for different guys, especially on the mound.”
Christian Hollie (Keller Fossil Ridge) and Will Olson (Sherman) headline a freshman class that represents the first group to come in with the recently updated facilities at Clay Gould Ballpark. The project won’t be completed by Opening Day, but new locker rooms and an updated dugout will give the Mavericks a perk they’ve never had before.
Sibley, the senior shortstop who’s been to three championship games, said this group is primed to leave its mark.
“These 11 freshman are really going to springboard us for years to come,” he said.
Season opener: Friday vs. Missouri State at Nacogdoches
Home opener: Feb. 20 vs. Southeastern La., Clay Gould Ballpark
Sun Belt opener: March 6 at Arkansas St.
Globe Life Park Game: March 17 vs. Texas, Globe Life Park
Sun Belt Tournament: May 20 at Troy
Clay Gould Ballpark improvements
▪ New dugout
▪ New clubhouse
▪ New outfield fence
▪ Picnic area
▪ Updated sound system