With a veteran-laden club, a Sun Belt Conference Championship isn’t a want for the UTA baseball team this season — it’s a must.
“It’s really not a goal, it’s like, we need to win,” senior Josh Minjarez said. “We didn’t meet our expectations if we don’t win a conference championship.”
The Mavericks finished third in 2019 after falling to Coastal Carolina University, the eventual champion, in extra innings at the conference tournament. UTA finished its season with a 32-26 overall record, going 17-12 in conference.
Now it’s a new season, and there are high expectations for UTA, which was tabbed as the West Division favorite in a preseason poll released by the league last month.
“We returned everybody on the offense and we added a [pitching] staff,” senior outfielder Connor Aube said. “That should speak for itself.”
Of the 36 ballplayers on head coach Darin Thomas’ roster, 27 of them are returners. The additions made to the team are mostly juniors and seniors, leaving only one incoming freshman.
Returning almost 30 players doesn’t guarantee success, but it does guarantee experience, Thomas said. And UTA has a lot of it, especially in the infield.
The corners are locked down, with Minjarez making the transition from shortstop to third base. Junior Cameron Dobbs, a transfer from Oklahoma State University, will take over that role for Minjarez.
In the outfield, Aube leads the squad. Senior Wyatt Divis will be a new face out there as Thomas will be moving him over from the mound.
Looking into the bullpen, the Mavericks lost five pitchers to graduation, including closer Andrew Gross, who led the conference and tied for second in the NCAA with 17 saves.
“That’s going to be a key spot that we’ve got to fill,” Thomas said. “He was money.”
On a positive note, three of the pitchers that were out last season are back and healthy: senior Logan Austin, junior Kody Bullard and sophomore Cade Winquest.
“If we just would have had one or two of those guys last year down the stretch, I think it would have made a big difference,” Thomas said. “But it’s good seeing them healthy and out throwing and adding to what we got.”
In terms of filling Gross’ spot, Thomas was on the fence. Gross left a hole, and replacing him will be tough.
Winquest has closer stuff; an overpowering fastball and a good breaking ball, but he’s looking like more of a starter as the season nears. Senior Cesar Gomez is also a candidate, with a power arm and a good breaking ball.
That spot is still evolving, though, and it’s up for grabs. If Winquest can serve better as a reliever than a starter, then he might just have a chance, associate head coach Jon Wente said.
UTA added six pitchers to its staff over the offseason. That includes the lone incoming freshman, southpaw Jonathan McNair.
As far as a batterymate for those pitchers, the Mavericks also lost a veteran in catcher Will Olson.
Olson was UTA’s backstop for a good few years, but Thomas is optimistic with the four catchers he has now.
“Going into the fall, you could say if there was one little bit of a question mark, it might be catcher because Will was such a mainstay back there for three years. But I don’t have any reservations about it at all,” Thomas said.
On the schedule for the Mavericks, you won’t see Globe Life Park or Globe Life Field, despite UTA playing an annual game at the ballpark ahead of the Texas Rangers’ season since 2013.
With construction for Globe Life Field still underway, the Mavericks will instead face UT-Austin at Dr Pepper Ballpark in Frisco, but they’ll be back on track next year, Thomas said.
At Clay Gould Ballpark, UTA will host some noteworthy games against the University of Utah, Dallas Baptist University, the University of Oklahoma and Texas Christian University.
They’ll see a couple of games against TCU on the road and some more against Baylor University and Texas A&M University.
Conference play will kick off mid-March with a three-game series at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and end at home with a series against Texas State University before heading into the Sun Belt tournament in May.
The Mavericks will open up their season this weekend against Texas A&M University Corpus Christi.
First pitch is slated for 6:30 p.m. Friday at Clay Gould Ballpark.