Tonight’s game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers has been marked on the calendars of Maverick players since their last meeting on April 5. That was a tough pill to swallow.
In a season with a lot of negatives, the University of Nebraska at Omaha had a chance at a season-salvaging win against Nebraska on a brisk night earlier this April. The Mavericks were unable to capitalize with runners in scoring position, leaving 12 runners on base throughout the game.
Coach Evan Porter’s last words that night? “Just one hit away.”
It’s hard to find a game the Maverick players wanted to win more. Not only are the Huskers in-state rivals, but with so many players on both teams from Nebraska, many of the players have played with or against each other at some point in their little league or high school days.
To add fuel to the fire, Nebraska is a Big-Ten school, and The Summit League, while Division-I, is not up to the caliber of the Big Ten conference. For all of those reasons— and probably many more–UNO will come into this game with a chip on its shoulder.
The Mavericks did everything right. Their pitching and defense showed up, and they found a way to get base runners on. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to scoring more runs than the other team. Leaving the bases loaded three times, UNO was unable to break the game open. As the game wore on, fans inside Werner Park could feel the momentum slipping from the Mavs grip. Lincoln finally went ahead in the eighth inning, scoring two runs. The Mavs never threatened again.
Their first matchup mimicked the plot of Rocky I. The Mavs went toe-to-toe with the Huskers, trading blows for the entire distance. Rocky stunned Apollo Creed when he went the distance in their boxing match.
Although Rocky lost, he proved to himself that he was as good as Apollo. The next time he stepped in the ring with Creed, Rocky left the champion. The same could be true for the Mavericks, as they prepare for round two with the Cornhuskers.
The Mavs will have their chance to go the distance and get some revenge. At 6:35 p.m. at Hawks Field, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
They say close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades, but the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s baseball team ought to be proud of their performance against in-state rival University of Nebraska at Lincoln Wednesday at Werner Park.
The Mavs showed they are not what their record says they are. Its clash with Nebraska was supposed to be a one-sided affair in favor of the Big-10 Cornhuskers. Instead, fans witnessed a tense, 9-inning chess match that could have gone either way. The Mavs had the Huskers up against the ropes much of the game, but couldn’t deliver the knockout blow to finish the upset, as the Huskers defeated Omaha 3-1.
In a game with nine starters from the Omaha metro area, Evan Porter made a bold decision to start senior Shane Meltz, who was 0-3 with an 8.38 ERA. The decision showed the brilliance of the young Maverick coach as Meltz did his job, holding the Huskers to one run in three innings of work.
“Meltz sets the tone for us when he goes out there as a starter,” Porter said.
In the bottom half of the second inning with Nebraska leading 1-0, the Mavs got the first two runners on, thanks to two errors by Lincoln third baseman, Luke Roskam. With Omaha eager to jump at the changing momentum, Parker Smejkal roped a double into left field to score Ryan Cate. Nebraska was able to limit the damage by getting Sam Palensky to pop-up with the bases loaded to get out of the jam with only allowing one run.
UNO faced a bases loaded jam in the third with Lincoln’s best hitter Scott Schreiber up. Schreiber laced a line drive that drilled Meltz in the leg, but the senior was able to recover and make the throw to first to preserve the tie.
“Getting that one timely hit has been our enemy all season,” Porter said. “We just have to keep grinding and keep battling, and it will pay off.”
Following the steps of its big brother, Omaha loaded up the bases as well in the third inning. With UNO’s patience at the plate amounting to base runners, Nebraska head coach Darin Erstad was prompted to make a call to the bullpen. A new arm was all the Huskers needed to stymie the Mavs hopes of taking the lead, as Nate Fisher retired two straight batters to end the peril.
With Nebraska up against the wall, Omaha left the bases loaded in two separate innings, shifting the momentum of the game. After holding the Mavs, Nebraska scored an unearned run on a wild pitch with two outs in the sixth inning.
James Smith, who came in relief for Omaha, shut down the Huskers for three innings before surrendering the unearned run.
For much of the game, Omaha had Nebraska right where they wanted them.
“We had a great approach all game, and I felt like we had good plate discipline,” Porter said. “Just one hit away.”
Sophomore third baseman Parker Smejkal’s at-bats start long before he steps to the plate. In fact, they start before he even puts his jersey on.
The third basemen from the University of Nebraska at Omaha said he visualizes how every game will play out the night before the actual game.
“The key to my success is my preparation,” Smejkal said.
Smejkal’s “success” was much needed last weekend for the UNO Maverick baseball team. After getting swept in its home opener against South Dakota State, the Mavs had time to reflect on their season thus far.
Senior Sam Murphy called the Mavs start “embarrassing.” Five days later, Omaha traveled to Fort Wayne, Indiana to play Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne in a three-game series. With the Mavs ailing on all cylinders, the sophomore slugger helped awaken the Mavericks’ season.
In the opening game, the Mavs wasted no time getting on the board. In the first inning, with freshman Cole Thibodeau on second base, Smejkal lined a pitch right back up the middle to give the Mavs a 1-0 lead. They would tack on three more, which would be enough run support for junior Corey Binger. He got his second win of the year, surrendering one run in a complete game effort.
In game two, senior Sam Murphy threw his own complete game, giving up a lone run. Smejkal sparked the offense, going three-for-three with a pair of two-run bombs. Aided by 10 runs in the first inning, the Mavs went on to win 14-1 in a seven-inning contest.
UNO capped off the weekend in a thrilling come-from-behind 9-8 victory. Down 8-4 in the eighth inning, the Mavericks refused to rollover. A five-run, four-hit inning finally peaked when with the game tied 8-8 and the bases loaded, freshman Mark Ehresman was hit by a pitch to give the Mavs a 9-8 win and complete the sweep.
In Smejkal’s eyes, this winning streak was just a matter of when, not if.
“We were playing tough teams and showing bits of success,” Smejkal said, “but to put it all together for three games and come out with a sweep feels pretty good.”
After its recent ascendancy, the UNO baseball team now faces a crossroads in its season. Fans have seen the good, the bad and the ugly, but now Omaha must choose a path. For Smejkal, there’s only one option.
“We’ve shown we can win, Omaha baseball is ready to turn this season around and make our program proud,” Smejkal said.
“We finally stopped beating ourselves and let our opponent beat us instead,” joked Evan Porter, head coach for the University of Nebraska at Omaha Mavericks’ baseball team after it’s latest loss against Northern Colorado.
A week before the conference schedule starts, the Mavericks dropped both games of their doubleheader in it’s first ever game at Isaacson Field. Having previously played at Boy’s Town, the first game in the Maverick’s new home stadium saw a 9-4 loss to Northern Colorado. The Mav’s took a 4-3 lead into the eight inning, but an eight-run assault by the Bears demoralized all chances of an Omaha home-opening win. The hardships continued the next game, as UNO lost, 7-3.
Despite the bad weekend, coach Porter feels good heading into conference play. This bold statement may surprise some given the fact that the team has lost 12 in a row. However, Porter feels that his team is “finally learning how to win.”
As Porter had said before the season started, he isn’t concerned with wins as much as progress until conference play. After a 20-3 opening day loss back in Feb., there was a lot of room for progress. Porter cites improvement in his team’s hitting as of late. After only scoring 17 runs in it’s first 10 games, UNO has scored 29 runs in six games since. Still, the Mavs recent burst of offense hasn’t produced wins.
If anything can be taken away from the Mavs season thus far, it’s that they clearly have flaws. Omaha has yet to find a facet of their game that they can rely on. When the Mavs have had leads, they lose them late in games, courtesy of its bullpen, which fails to have a reliever with an ERA under seven. On offense, the team average is sitting at just a .197 batting average.
When both a team’s hitting and pitching are struggling, wins are going to be few and far between. That is why Porter knows improvement must come before success does.
“We are just trying to improve one area at a time, and I feel like we are doing that little by little,” Porter said. With the conference opener against South Dakota State looming this Friday, the time for the Mavs to turn around a 1-14 record is here and now.
Following a grueling start to the season, Porter declares “I think we’re finally ready to win some games.”
Many people may still be waiting to wake up from the nightmare that has been the start of the sea-son for the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s baseball team. After being outscored 55-8 in their first four losses, the Mavs have since lost four in a row, being held without a run in the last three of those contests. Granted, the competition has been stellar, but fans surely expected the Mavs to be more competitive against these top teams.
The Mavs showed they were capable of playing quality baseball with a quality team in their first game of last weekend when they battled Louisville, losing 7-2 in a game that was close until the last few innings. Unfortunately, that game turned out to be the only bright side of the series. The Mavs lost the next two games to No. 9 Louisville, 6-0 and 8-0, and only scrounged out six hits combined in both games.
Omaha then came home, but made a quick pit stop in Kansas for a mid-week game against Wichita State. Last time in Kansas, the Mavs lost to the Kansas Jayhawks, 11-1. The Mavs’ previous meeting with Wichita State was a barn-burner where Omaha came up just short, losing 5-4. This seasons battle against the Shockers drew yet another parallel with their previous series – a blowout loss.
Managing only three hits, the UNO was embarrassed 8-0. The loss brought the Mavs to 1-8 on the season, only scoring 18 runs in their first nine games. Things were looking brighter last Friday when the Mavs put 11 runs up against Incarnate Word, but gave up two late runs to squander their lead to lose 12-11. The Mavericks surely have not had a problem giving up runs, as they have given up 70 in their first 10 games.
Without a doubt, Omaha has been the underdog in every game this season. Still, that’s no excuse for the lack of runs being produced, which, outside of their 12-run performance, is less than two runs per game. That type of offense won’t get many wins against Division I teams.
Simply put, if the Mavericks want to find success this season, the bats need to get going. One year removed from having the best hitter in the conference in Clayton Taylor, the 2017 Mavericks do not have one player hitting over .300 this season. With conference play starting in less than two weeks, it is imperative the Mavericks find their identity at the plate.
Head coach Evan Porter surely wanted to start off his first season on a more positive note, but the ugly truth is that there is nowhere to go but up. Many of the questions fans have going into this season remain unanswered. One can only hope UNO finds its identity before they host South Dakota State on March 10 to open conference play.
After a dismal opening two weeks, pressing the panic button seems justified, but even frustrated fans must keep in mind, the Mavericks haven’t even had their home opener yet. Coach Porter will surely look to turn things around before their home-opener. As far as the Mavs’ offense, it’s time to hit, or get hit.
From 2005-2009, Evan Porter was the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s do-it-all shortstop. A two-time All-American, Porter left UNO as a career .372 hitter, while smashing 43 home runs and holding the most all-time by a Maverick. He also holds UNO’s career records for total bases (527), doubles (75), runs batted in (249) and hits in a season (97).
For fans, reminiscing on the renowned career Porter had may stir up feelings of success. As a player, Porter and UNO made it to the 2007 NCAA Division II College World Series. In addition, Porter was part of two Maverick teams (2006, 2008) that set a school record with 45 wins. During his career, UNO made four straight NCAA regional appearances and won the 2008 NCC championship.
That all ended in 2009 when he graduated. It’s now 2016, and Porter is back to deliver some of that same success; this time at the Division I level. Porter’s role, however, won’t be diving in the hole to prevent a single, or clearing the bases with a line-drive in the gap. Instead, you will find him leading from the dugout.
After four years as an assistant, Porter was introduced as the new head coach in 2016 for the UNO baseball team after the firing of longtime coach, Bob Herold.
Evan Porter, used the words “shocked” and “surprised” to describe his initial reaction to getting the call to be the head coach at UNO. He quickly realized he had some big shoes to fill, in place of the 17-year tenure of Herold.
It is now Porter’s team. Even though he had just been propelled to a head-coaching job far before he could have imagined, he still kept a humble perspective.
“I was fortunate enough to get the chance to play and coach with [Coach Herold],” Porter said. “He is one of the most passionate and energetic guys for the game of baseball I’ve ever been around and has taught me so much.”
Luckily for Porter, he has some talented veterans to assist him.
The leadership of this team comes from the two Sam’s. Seniors, Sam Murphy and Sam Palensky, have led this young group through the off-season. Porter said Murphy and Palensky were tremendous in helping him get the team together as a unit.
Both players and coaches know the beginning of this season is going to be an uphill battle. On Feb. 17, the team will play its first game against the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on UNLV’s home field. Unfortunately up to this point, the baseball team has only been able to practice outside once this year due to inclement weather.
UNO will play its first four games against teams that have been able to get outside year-round. This could lead to an unequal playing field for the Mavericks early in the season. This is something Sam Murphy is all too familiar with.
“Since I have been here, we haven’t started the season well— sometimes it takes time,” Murphy said.
Like Murphy, Porter isn’t as worried about his first start to a sea-son as the head coach either.
“It’s not about wins and losses, it’s about growing as a team and getting ‘hot’ at the right time,” Porter said. “The purpose of the earlier part of this is to establish roles for each player on the team.”
Being such a young team, it’s not easy to judge the potential this team has. Replacing Tyler Fox, the 2016 Summit League Pitcher of the year, as well as Clayton Taylor—Summit League Player of the year—would be hard on any program.
“Relying on the young guys is what we are going to have to do at some point this season, so they have to be ready to play their role,” Porter said.
One of those young guys who Porter thinks could be a real impact this year is freshman Cole Thibodeau.
“He runs like a deer, and really could do damage on the basepaths because he is smart when he plays.” Porter said.
For UNO, the process stays the same even with a new face leading the Mavericks. Porter realizes the season is a marathon, not a sprint. The team will have time to find its identity before the grueling stretch of conference season.
Maverick fans will be watching UNO baseball in a new era. Replacing a long-time head coach is never easy, but one thing is for sure: Evan Porter sure has a bit of winning experience himself.