UNO knows it will be considered a massive underdog when it makes its Division I regional debut Friday night in Los Angeles against top-ranked UCLA, the No. 1 overall seed for the 64-team NCAA tournament.
The Mavericks couldn’t care less, though. In fact, they embrace the challenge.
Third-year coach Evan Porter said his team carried that kind of mindset throughout its historic season in which it claimed the Summit League’s regular-season and tourney championships.
“This is a group of fighters,” he said. “We feel like we’ve got some guys on the mound that can do their thing against anyone in the country. It’s not an easy road anywhere you go. Might as well go face the top dog.”
The Mavs (31-22-1) didn’t have to wait long for their regional destination to be revealed Monday. The NCAA selection show announced UCLA (47-8) as the No. 1 seed then unveiled UNO as its opponent.
A packed room at DJ’s Dugout in Aksarben Village, where UNO held its team watch party with fans, erupted immediately. The rest of the selection show was pretty much a blur to all those in attendance.
“It was kind of surreal, honestly,” first baseman Braden Rogers said. “I didn’t quite know what to expect. I saw our name up there, and it was like a pure joy inside of me. I just wanted to explode. To see our name up there on the board, and hear everybody cheering, it was kind of a surreal moment.”
UNO enters the regional riding a wave of confidence after dethroning 19-time Summit champion Oral Roberts on its home field Saturday in a winner-take-all final. Summit League pitcher of the year Payton Kinney, in his second start in four days, carried a shutout into the eighth inning of his team’s 4-0 victory.
The senior will get the ball against the Bruins on Friday, Porter said, as long as his arm feels all right after pitching more than 13 innings in the Summit tourney. If Kinney goes, the Mavs think they have a chance.
“I think if PK goes out and pitches, that kid isn’t fazed by anything,” outfielder Thomas DeBonville said. “With him being unfazed, everyone else is going to be unfazed as well. I think we’ve got enough guys who are old enough to know and have been through enough stuff. We’re ready for those big moments.”
The UNO-UCLA game is slated for a 9 p.m. start Friday. Baylor (34-17), the second seed in the four-team field, and Loyola Marymount (32-23) will open up the regional in Los Angeles at 3 p.m.
Monday’s announcement was a monumental moment for UNO. The regional tourney will be, as well.
“I’m excited for the program and, most importantly, for our guys,” Porter said. “I think this will be a really fun week for them. The hardest part is getting into these tournaments. We’ve done that. Now, we’ve just got to keep it going.”
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