It's a familiar story.
Northern team opens the baseball season down South against a more-than-ready and more-than-willing opponent.
UNO opens its second season as a Division I program Friday at Texas-San Antonio, the first of a three-game weekend for the Mavericks in the UTSA Classic. After Friday's 6 p.m. game, UNO plays another Texas school in Stephen F. Austin at 2 p.m. Saturday before facing fellow Northerners in Penn State at noon Sunday.
“At the beginning of the season, you play games where you can get them,” UNO coach Bob Herold said. “We'll throw a couple of our good guys at them and see if we can hang with them. Those Texas players, I don't think they ever have to practice inside, so they're a few months ahead of us.
“And they're the home team, so they have no intention of letting you win.”
UTSA, picked to finish eighth in the Western Athletic Conference, is off to a 6-3 start.
Outfielder Daniel Rockett is hitting .514 with two homers and 12 RBIs, infielder RJ Perucki is at .425 with three homers and 17 RBIs, and infielder Mike Warren is hitting .406.
On the mound, freshman Nolan Trabanino is 3-0 with a 1.29 ERA while holding opponents to a .196 average, and junior Wesley Cox has a win and a save while posting a 1.74 ERA.
The Roadrunners were 22-32 last year, including an 11-21 record that put them last in their former conference, the Southland.
Stephen F. Austin is picked fourth in the Southland this season after going 26-33 in 2012, including 16-17 for a tie for sixth in league play.
The Jacks are 2-4 this season, with Ricardo Sanchez hitting .450, preseason All-Southland second baseman Freddy Villalobos at .375 with three homers, and preseason All-SLC pitcher Cameron Gann 0-1 with one save and a 2.16 ERA.
Penn State, which went 29-27 overall and 15-9 for third in the Big Ten last season, is 1-5 after dropping two of three at East Tennessee State and then getting swept at Liberty.
Taylor Skerpon is hitting .357 and James Coates .350 for the Nittany Lions, but pitcher Steven Hill — who threw a no-hitter against Iowa last April — is 0-2 with a 7.15 ERA.
UNO is coming off a difficult 12-36 season, but is hoping that a return to health throughout the roster, a more consistent schedule that includes less travel and a full slate of Summit League games, and another year competing at the highest level will lead to more success.
The Mavs are picked to finish last in the six-team Summit League.
UNO's top offensive holdovers are third baseman Tyler Splichal and catcher Alex Mortensen. Splichal hit .302 in 14 games last year before being lost with a season-ending injury, while Mortensen hit .292 with four homers and a team-best 26 RBIs.
Newcomers expected to anchor the middle of the Mavs' order include four outfielders: senior Ryan Keele, a Bellevue East product who played last season at Division I Northwestern State, freshman Alex Schultz of Sioux Falls, S.D., freshman Cole Gruber of Papillion-La Vista, and junior outfielder Brett Bass, a Millard West product who played last year at Iowa Western Community College.
Senior Connor McCrite also is in the outfield mix.
Another newcomer, sophomore first baseman Brett Miller of Johnson County (Kan.) CC, figures to be part of the regular lineup, splitting time at first with senior Cory Buckley, who is also among the Mavs' starting pitchers.
Three players are competing for the two middle infield spots: junior Caleb Palensky, a returning starter who hit .250 last year, redshirt freshman Clayton Taylor of Elkhorn Mount Michael, and redshirt freshman Connor Messinger.
Senior Matt Tew is back to front the Mavs' starting pitching rotation after going 1-6 with a 5.60 ERA last season and will start the opener. Buckley (1-2, 5.62 in three starts) gets the ball against Stephen F. Austin.
Herold said freshmen Tyler Fox and Marcus Ethen will split duties against Penn State.
“Tyler Fox is really a dandy,” Herold said of the 6-foot-2, 180-pounder from Thornton, Colo. “He reminds me of (Philadelphia Phillies pitcher) Tyler Cloyd when he was a freshman — a real cool customer who commands the strike zone.”
Sophomore lefty Cole Volkers (1-2, 3.16, .183 opponent average) and senior Derek Landis (1-3, 5.02) are among the other contenders for the rotation.
“Volkers might have been our best pitcher at the end of last spring, then Fox and Ethen both pitched great in the fall,” Herold said. “Zach Williamsen (a sophomore who was 2-2 with a 4.65 ERA last year) was good in the fall. Landis has been impressive this spring.”
Sophomore Sam Raetz and junior college relievers Chris Mullins and Dylan Casey give Herold three more left-handed options.
Josh Bullock, a junior from Elkhorn who was 0-4 with a 6.12 ERA but struck out 27 in 3213 innings last season, is the Mavs' closer.
“He's the guy we want closing games,” Herold said. “And we'd like to see him closing a lot of games.”
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