Nobody said it was going to be easy for the University of Nebraska at Omaha baseball program in its first full season as a member of the Summit League.
Maybe someone should have.
After being picked to finish last in the six-team league, the Mavericks started Summit play 8-0 — though none of those games came against either of the league's predicted top two, North Dakota State and South Dakota State.
Then, UNO freshman Tyler Fox outdueled NDSU's John Straka — one of the league's best — in last Friday's series opener. And the Mavs bounced back from a disheartening Saturday sweep by the Bison to rap out 24 hits in a 19-11 Sunday win for a series split.
Though 16-18 overall, UNO is 10-2 in the Summit with a three-game lead on South Dakota State. With 14 league games to go, there is slightly more than half the Summit schedule remaining.
“That's big for us — just being able to say that even though this is our first year in the Summit League, we're here to compete for a championship,” catcher Alex Mortensen said. “We're not here to just play you guys, we're here to win.”
The Mavs have taken a steady pace to earn an inside track to the title.
“We don't really talk about it,” UNO coach Bob Herold said. “The plan is to win the league, but the season is too long to focus on that — if you go 8-0 and lose the next 12, you're not in good shape. So you just try to win the next game, then the next game, then win a series. When you do that, things start taking care of themselves.”
That's why Sunday's bounce-back win was important. Rather than sulking after their first two league losses — the second of which was a 15-7 drubbing — the Mavs produced more hits in a game than any previous Herold-coached UNO squad.
“It was huge,” senior outfielder Ryan Keele said. “We didn't gain a spot, but we didn't lose a spot, either. We set out every week to win the weekend, and at least we didn't lose it last weekend.”
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Keele hit two homers, Tyler Splichal went 5 for 6 and Caleb Palensky and Clayton Taylor each went 4 for 5 Sunday.
“Saturday was one of those days where we hit it hard and the ball didn't fall, and they hit it soft and it did — and they hit some hard, too,” Mortensen said. “It was one of the most frustrating days we've had. But we came out with a little fire in our bellies Sunday. It was a dogfight, and it was good to win that one.”
The Mavs play their next eight league games on the road, though they are four-game series against Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne and Oakland — teams they swept in home doubleheaders April 5 and April 7, respectively, to open the league season.
“I think you're always going to be picked last when you enter a conference,” Keele said. “But I think people are seeing that we're a solid baseball team. And these teams, we're not going to take them any differently than when we played them the first time. We're going to stick to the plan like we have been.”
Said Herold: “It's not like anyone expected us to be here. I'm sure people were wondering, 'Who the heck are these guys?' I'm not saying they took us for granted, but we got swamped by those teams last year.”
Last year's injury-riddled, road-weary Mavs went 12-36 overall, including 1-9 against IPFW, Oakland and North Dakota State.
“After seeing last year, nobody wanted to finish it off that way,” said Keele, a Bellevue East graduate who sat out last season as a transfer from Northwestern (La.) State.
Mortensen, a sophomore from Millard North, leads the Summit with a .352 average and 15 doubles. He's second with a .496 slugging percentage. Taylor, a freshman from Elkhorn Mount Michael, leads the league with a .474 on-base percentage.
In Summit-only games, senior Cory Buckley is second with a .488 average, Splichal is third at .452, freshman Alex Schultz is fourth at .444 and Keele is seventh at .389.
UNO, the league's best hitting team at .305 for the season, has hit .365 in league play — no other team is better than South Dakota State at .280.
In something similar to last year — when the Mavs spent most of their first season in Division I on the road — UNO leaves town Thursday for the start of the Friday series at IPFW, drives back to Iowa City for a Tuesday game against Iowa, then heads east again for the series with Oakland in suburban Detroit.
Mortensen said he doesn't worry about a potential letdown.
“We think every team in the Summit can beat any team on any given day, and the quality of record doesn't always hold true,” Mortensen said.
Road series with North Dakota State and South Dakota State were wiped out because of weather, so the Mavs are finished with the Bison. After a May 14 home doubleheader with Western Illinois, they wrap up the season with a four-game home series with SDSU from May 16 through 18.
After that, it's the Summit League tournament — for everyone but UNO, which isn't eligible for postseason play until 2016 as part of its transition to Division I.
In the meantime, the Mavs can set sights on the regular-season title.
“Especially for us seniors, it's really the only thing we can accomplish,” Keele said. “That's as good as it gets for us, so it's on our minds pretty heavily. And I think the underclassmen are doing a good job of realizing that, too.”
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