New year, same goal: Omaha Baseball season preview

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Jordan McAlpine
CONTRIBUTOR 

Omaha’s Matt Bondarchuk in a game against Nebraska at Werner Park last season. Photo by Joseph Saaid.

One year removed from one of their best seasons in program history, which resulted in an appearance in the NCAA tournament, the Mavericks come into the spring of 2020 with a chip on their shoulders and are ready to defend their Summit League crown.

“We’ll be the one on top going into it and getting everybody’s best shot,” said 4th-year head coach Evan Porter. “I think our guys are up for the challenge.”

Omaha finished off the 2019 campaign with a (31-24-1) record overall and Summit League best (20-10) regular season record, followed up with a (3-1) showing in the league championship. The Mavericks were crowned both regular season and tournament champions, sending them to the Los Angeles regional where they faced UCLA and Baylor.

Since joining the Division I ranks and the Summit League in 2012, Omaha has won three regular season conference titles, including last year. However, the 2019 season marked their first in the conference tournament, and this group has aspirations of repeating in 2020. Omaha was picked second in the preseason coaches poll, but they know it all starts with building off what got them to the top one year ago.

“To be able to repeat, we’ve just got to do the same thing we did last year: Be a team,” said senior Parker Smejkal. “Nobody by themselves, just always rooting for the next guy.”

Smejkal was recently named one of the conferences ‘players to watch’, and he’s one of several guys returning from the 2019 roster who will be key to their success. The Columbus, Nebraska, native led Omaha with a 0.329 average, seven home runs and 43 RBIs. He also led the team with a 0.561 slugging percentage and 0.457 on base.

Behind Smejkal, Breyden Eckhout, Matt Bondarchuk and Keil Krumwiede bring back the leading averages at the plate. Eckhout finished 2019 at 0.293 with 55 hits – the second most on the team – and four home runs.

Switching gears to the mound, redshirt junior Joey Machado and junior Spencer Koelewyn bring back the most experience in the rotation, with 69.2 and 57 innings respectively. Machado finished 2019 (6-3) with a 4.65 era and a 31-64 walk/strikeout ratio and was named Omaha’s other representative on the conference ‘players to watch’ list. Koelewyn returns with a 4-2 record that saw 79 strikeouts and an opponent average of 0.167.

On the backend, there will be several new opportunities in the bullpen, as the only person who returns with a save to their name is sophomore Jackson Gordon, who finished 2019 with four. Gordon threw 32.1 innings, while fellow returners Jacob Mohler (24.1), Richie Holetz (16) and Mark Ehresman (10) will bring back limited experience for the Mavericks.

However, it goes beyond just them, as the Mavericks will look for an impact from several new faces all over the diamond. With eight freshmen and several junior college transfers, there’s room to grow for many guys this season.

At the same time, the future couldn’t look much better past 2020 for Evan Porter as he enters his fourth season as the head man. After going (12-40) and (15-35) in his first two years respectively, 2020 hopes to be a turning point for the young coach.

The record and postseason success are one thing, but in addition to the product on the field a culture is starting to show, and Omaha baseball is gaining momentum as a program. The Mavericks will open up the home portion of 2021 in unfamiliar territory—an on-campus home ballpark.

“It’ll be nice to have a home,” said Porter. “It’ll be nice having the ability to play in our home stadium in early March, so we’re excited about that.”

As exciting as that is going forward, this group also knows they’ll need to keep that on the backburner and focus on the task at hand: 2020.

This year’s slate will include 21 home games, three played at Werner Park, while the rest will take place at J.J. Isaacson Field. The schedule also features road contests with Big Ten foes Nebraska and Minnesota, along with a home-and-home with Kansas and home showdown with Kansas State out of the Big 12. Kansas State, Northwestern and Creighton will make up the three opponents at Werner Park.

The 2020 season gets underway Friday, as the Mavericks take on the Northwestern Wildcats in Glendale, Arizona. The first home games will take place on Friday, March 6, a doubleheader with Portland.

 

 

 

 

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