May 26, 2009
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
Grand Junction, Colo., is not exactly the destination point Ray Birmingham had in mind for this time of the season. But the Lobo baseball coach is willing to take his lumps and do the things necessary so maybe the season-ending lumps don't come his away again in 2010.
Birmingham's program made another solid stride forward in 2009 and is becoming one of the more respected and fastest growing programs in the Southwest. But the fiery UNM coach is not happy with the way the season ended. He's not happy not being in the NCAA's 64-team bracket. He's not happy with how his Lobos finished in the Mountain West Tournament.
His solution: Get recruiting. Get better.
"We didn't get it done. That's my responsibility," said Birmingham. "We had a great season, but we didn't get where we wanted to go (NCAA playoffs).
"We finished second in the two-month conference battle, but we're not in the NCAA tournament. I'm not happy with that, but I'm extremely motivated to make this program better and I'm extremely motivated to be out recruiting. That's my job."
The Lobos went 0-2 in the MWC tourney this past weekend. The Utah Utes got hot and won the tourney to snatch the league's automatic bid. TCU and San Diego State were awarded at-large bids by the NCAA Selection Committee.
This week Birmingham is in Grand Junction, the site of the 2009 NJCAA Division I JUCO World Series. The UNM coach is looking for a few good arms and a few good bats to become good Lobos down the road.
The Lobos' roster will take a hit in losing seniors Kevin Atkinson, Mike Brownstein, Brian Cavazos-Galvez, Clinton Cox, Daniel Grubbs, John Hesketh, Dane Hamilton, Brandon Hewett, Will Kerr and Bobby Moore.
"That's a special group of guys," said Birmingham. "When they came here, I challenged them to make the program better and they responded on the field and off the field. Now, I'm going to make that challenge to some other kids and see if they want to become Lobos."
The loss of Brownstein, Atkinson, Cavazos-Galvez and Hamilton represent the loss of four of UNM's top six hitters. Hesketh was the top starter and Moore had eight starts. Cox and Grubbs were two of the top relievers out of the bullpen.
Birmingham's goal on the recruiting trail will focus on adding depth to all positions, landing a few players who have the talent to provide instant help, and - of course - building the pitching staff. When the JC tourney ends, Birmingham will travel throughout the Southwest and West to various "Showcase" tournaments designed to place young baseball talent in front of college recruiters.
Birmingham felt his Lobos were deserving of a 2009 NCAA bid, but is still happy that the Mountain West placed three teams in the bracket. The MWC had never had an at-large representative before this season.
"I think that Utah, TCU and San Diego State all deserved to go," said Birmingham. "Utah got hot and won the tournament. Give them credit. TCU was ranked all year and San Diego State won 40 games and had a solid RPI. I hope those teams do well so our conference continues to gain respect."
The Utes were the first No. 6 seed to win the MWC tourney. The Utes are at No. 2 seed Cal State-Fullerton on Friday when the 64-team, double-elimination tourney begins. TCU is hosting a regional and play Wright State on Friday. San Diego State opens with Virginia at the Cal State-Irvine regional on Friday.
The Lobos finished the season at 37-20 and were one of several notable teams that failed to leap off the NCAA bubble into the bracket: including New Mexico State (44-17), Eastern Illinois (36-14), Rhode Island (37-20-1) and San Jose State (41-20). UNM lost to SDSU and BYU in back-to-back MWC tourney games. Those losses, combined with Utah grabbing the automatic bid, left UNM on the bubble.
Birmingham said he would like to see the NCAA adopt a playoff system where at least the top two teams during regular-season conference play are handed automatic bids.
"The conference tournament is kind of a like a re-do," said Birmingham, whose Lobos finished second to TCU in regular-season play. "It makes you wonder what two months of hard work and success was all about.
"At this level, there are just too many things that come into play during the selection process for at-large bids. It should be head-to-head competition during the season that counts. Do I understand the system? Yes. Do I agree with it? No. "
Birmingham said he thinks the four teams most likely to work their way through the 64-team NCAA bracket are Texas, UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and LSU. Texas is the No. 1 overall seed in the tourney and arguably has the top pitching staff in the nation. However, a No. 1 seed has won the College World Series only once since the bracket was expanded to 64 teams - Miami in 1999.