UNO isn’t dwelling on what happened last season, but it can’t deny that it occurred.
The Mavericks, coming off consecutive Summit League regular-season titles, opened their conference schedule with six straight wins. They then went to Oral Roberts, which returned to the league it long dominated after two years in the Southland Conference, and were swept in a key series.
UNO’s season completely unraveled from there. It won only six of its 21 conference games after that ill-fated weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And it lost each of its last six Summit League weekend series.
The Mavs, who are now eligible for postseason play, say that all of that is now in the past.
“We had a couple of pretty good years in a row (and) didn’t do what we wanted to do last year,” said UNO coach Bob Herold, whose team went 21-31 overall (12-18 in conference) in 2015. “Now we’re able to go to the postseason. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to show what we can do this year.”
There is plenty of reason for optimism. The players Herold built a championship culture around — starter Tyler Fox and all-Summit picks Clayton Taylor, Cole Gruber and Alex Schultz — are now seniors. The latter three will again occupy the top of the Maverick lineup while Fox will get the ball every Friday night.
“It’s fill in the blank with the rest of the guys,” Herold said. “We’ve got really good players. It’s just that these guys caught the vision a little bit earlier that we can be about as good as we want to be. We spend the rest of the time trying to get everybody else on board.”
That shouldn’t be a problem with this year’s squad, Fox said. A strong offseason has the Mavs ready.
“We have great team chemistry,” said the senior from Thornton, Colorado. “(It was) a really competitive fall, really competitive winter. We’ll have a lot of guys who will be able to fill in and mix in everywhere.”
Fox was the 2014 Summit League pitcher of the year after going 9-1 that season. His tough-luck record was 5-4 last year, even though his 2.88 ERA was the second best in the conference.
As far as Friday starters go in the six-team conference, Fox has been as good as can be expected.
“That has to do with a lot of diving catches and a lot of diving plays on the infield,” he said. “I gave up some bees out there, and they play behind me. A lot of it is just throwing strikes and letting your defense work. They’re there for you, you’re there for them. This year, nothing changes.”
Herold said returners Brett Sasse and Corey Binger are among the top candidates to join the UNO ace in the weekend rotation. And he feels like the candidates for midweek starters are solid as well.
Offensively, the top of UNO’s order — Schultz, Gruber and Taylor — is as good as any around. Schultz is consistently on base. Gruber hit .399 last year and is a nuisance on the basepaths. And Taylor provides power and production in the No. 3 spot. The trio believes there will be plenty of offense behind them.
“We’ve got a lot of depth, both hitting and pitching, as opposed to last year,” Gruber said. “We just need a couple of guys to step up here and there. We’ve got the bats, it’s just whoever will fill in on defense.”
There have been some position switches for UNO’s returning stars. Taylor has shifted from shortstop to third base to maximize the defensive potential of the left side of the infield, while Gruber and Schultz swapped spots in the outfield. The former is now in center, the latter in right.
The moves not only should benefit UNO this year, but help the three players moving forward.
“Barring a major injury, all these guys are going to play professional baseball,” Herold said. “I was in pro ball for 22 years. They’re better than a lot of guys I coached.”
Taylor’s position change is the most noteworthy. His move leaves the shortstop duties to freshman Riley Herold, the coach’s son, and means there will be no one on the infield returning at his former spot.
“I think we’ve got a lot of guys that can play,” Taylor said. “It’s going to be interesting to see the shuffle of guys that are going to be out there.”
The Mavs open their season Friday against Eastern Michigan on the first of two early trips to Georgia. UNO also goes to Wichita State, Grand Canyon and Air Force before its conference slate opens in Omaha on March 18. Home-and-home dates with Nebraska and Kansas State and nonleague road games at Kansas, Iowa and Creighton all come while the Mavs are in the midst of Summit play.
UNO is chasing a top-four finish in the league, which would qualify it for the tourney in Tulsa.
“It’s always nice at the end of the year to get an opportunity to compete for a championship. I’m sure it’s going to be different for the players,” Herold said. “The coaching staff sets the direction of the team. It’s the players’ team. They can make the most of it or the least of it.”
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Top returner: Clayton Taylor, Sr., 3B
UNO’s first three-time all-conference selection in the Summit League, who led the Mavs in homers and RBIs last season, moves to third base for his final year.
Newcomer to watch: Riley Herold, Fr., SS
Freshman from Millard North, the son of UNO coach Bob Herold, gets the starting nod at shortstop as Taylor makes the transition to the hot corner.
Other projected starters: Sam Palensky, Jr., 2B; Ryan Cate, So., 1B; Collin Leif, Sr., C; Josh Scribner, Fr., C.
Key question: Will the position changes by Taylor and Cate, who played primarily at second last year, make the Mavs better defensively? That is the point of the moves.
Top returner: Cole Gruber, Sr., CF
The 2015 Summit League batting champion, who hit .399 during his junior year, is already third on UNO’s all-time list for career stolen bases with 62.
Another to watch: Alex Schultz, Sr., RF
Two-time all-conference pick had a team-high 22 multi-hit games in 2015 and reached base safely in 23 consecutive outings during one stretch of the year.
Other projected starters: Adam Caniglia, So., LF; Cole Patterson, So., LF.
Key question: Will UNO ever have another duo like Gruber and Schultz? They’ve set a lofty standard through their three seasons in Omaha to date.
Top returner: Tyler Fox, Sr., RHP
UNO ace, the Summit League pitcher of the year when he went 9-1 in 2014, has 20 wins in his collegiate career — tied for fifth in UNO history.
Newcomer to watch: Eric Moreno, Jr., RHP
Junior college transfer, a Scottsbluff native, could become a midweek starter after going 17-6 in his two seasons at Lamar (Colorado).
Other projected starters: Brett Sasse, Jr., RHP; Corey Binger, So., RHP; Shane Meltz, Jr., RHP; Marcus Ethen, Sr., RHP; Skyler Sylvester, Jr., RHP.
Key question: Can UNO find consistent starting pitching through the weekend once league play begins? It knows what it’s getting every Friday from Fox.
Top returner: Sam Murphy, Jr., LHP
Lefty reliever, who redshirted last season after breaking his throwing hand, went 3-1 with a 2.86 ERA in 19 appearances out of the bullpen as a sophomore.
Newcomer to watch: David Flattery, So., RHP
Junior college transfer, a multi-sport star while in high school in Iowa, went 5-2 last year in his only season at Iowa Central.
Other projected pitchers: Colton Adams, Jr., LHP; Robert Calvano, Sr., RHP; Brad Olsen, So., LHP; Nick Lawson, Fr., RHP; Cole Johnston, So., RHP; Connor Clark, Fr., LHP.
Key question: Who will the Mavs rely on to close out games? One possible scenario has Schultz coming in from the outfield.
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SUMMIT LEAGUE RANKINGS
1. Oral Roberts
The Golden Eagles have won or shared the regular-season title in each of their last 15 years in the conference and have claimed the tournament championship the last 16 times they’ve been in it. Last season’s Summit newcomer of the year Matt Whatley (.355), a catcher who led the league in runs scored, and all-conference third baseman Chase Stafford return, as does No. 3 starter Bryce Howe (4-2). Junior college transfer Logan Michaels (3-2 at Seminole State) will also pitch on the weekend.
The Mavericks, the league regular-season champions for the two seasons Oral Roberts was in the Southland Conference, can’t explain their slide to fourth in 2015. But they can bounce back behind a strong senior class. The top of the order — Alex Schultz, Cole Gruber (.399, 22 SB) and Clayton Taylor — may be the best in the league. Friday starter Tyler Fox (5-4, 2.88 ERA) was the 2014 Summit pitcher of the year. After four years of transition to Division I, UNO is now eligible for the postseason tourney.
3. South Dakota State
The Jackrabbits finished second behind Oral Roberts last year and have to fill some key vacancies. They do return leadoff hitter Paul Jacobson, all-conference selection Luke Ringhofer (.321, 41 RBIs) and Matt Johnson in their lineup, and Cody Sharrow is a three-year starter at shortstop. Ryan Froom, last year’s No. 3 starter, is scheduled to be South Dakota State’s top starter with Kansas State transfer Landon Busch joining him on the weekends. Will McAffer, a freshman from Canada, was drafted last summer.
The Mastodons return six all-conference selections from a team that was the runner-up in the league’s postseason tournament. Shortstop Greg Kaiser (.357, 10 HR), first baseman Kendall Whitman (43 RBIs) and outfielders Shane Trevino (48 RBIs) and Brandon Soat lead the way. Starting pitcher Evan Miller (6-5) led the conference with 94 strikeouts last season. IPFW has never had a winning record in Summit League play. But this team is loaded with veterans who led it to a school-record 28 wins last season.
5. North Dakota State
The Bison had advanced to the Summit’s tournament championship game for three consecutive years, winning the title in 2014, before falling short last season. In fact, they wouldn’t have even made the field had UNO been eligible. North Dakota State brings back seven regular starters, led by second-team all-conference outfielder Ben Petersen (.355). Millard South graduate Danny Regan returns in the leadoff spot. Reed Pfannenstein (1-6) and Brian VanderWoude (4-2, 2.47) will lead the pitching staff.
6. Western Illinois
The Leathernecks bring back six regular position players and two of their top three starters from a team that missed making the league’s postseason tournament by one game. There is preseason buzz around left-hander Preston Church (2-7, 3.93), who has been picked as the conference’s preseason pitcher of the year by some. Baseball America lists Church and fellow starter Joe Mortillaro among the top four draft-eligible pitching prospects in the league. Western Illinois was last in the Summit in hitting in 2015.
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