June 21, 2010
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
You start the story of the 2010 New Mexico Lobos with a 48-year-old memory, a 48-year-old reminder of what Lobos have been reaching for since 1962 - the NCAA postseason. The reach finally turned into a grasp.
In 2010, that barrier, that stain on a proud program, that closed door, came crashing down as Ray Birmingham's Lobos joined the elite of NCAA baseball by drawing an at-large bid to the NCAA Championships.
"We had a bunch of blue-collar Lobos commit to a dream and to an idea and they made Lobo history," said Coach Birmingham. "And they didn't get into the tournament by getting hot at the end of the season. They earned it with their body of work.
"An at-large bid is a great token of respect for a team's season. It says you played a great schedule and were successful against the top teams in the country and you are good enough to play for a national championship. These Lobos have so much to be proud of."
To say that UNM's 2010 season is the greatest (so far) in Lobo history isn't much of a reach. For sure, you can say it's the best New Mexico season since 1962, the last year the Lobos placed their name on an NCAA bracket to determine baseball's national champion.
Birmingham made it clear since the day he was handed the Lobo head job three seasons ago that his final destination is the top of the mountain in Omaha, the site of the NCAA World Series where the eventual college king will be crowned. But before you reach the final bracket, you have to get a foot in the NCAA door and a foot on that path to Omaha.
The significance of pushing a New Mexico program into postseason play for the first time since 1962 speaks volumes for what Birmingham has been able to accomplish in only three seasons. It speaks even more about the band of Lobo brothers that took to the diamond in 2010.
"I noticed that this year the team was closer than any other year I've been here," said senior pitcher Willy Kesler. "It was, `I got your back and you got my back.' I think that attitude was huge for us this year."
This group of unified Lobos made history while it changed history. The season also validated the mindset established for this program the minute Birmingham pulled on a Lobo cap.
"The hardest part in building a program is to break the old mold and the mindset that comes with it," said Birmingham. "I think we broke that mindset three years ago, but you still have to go out and validate the change. These kids did it in a huge way. They made a monumental step, a historical step."
The Lobos proved themselves to be one of the top programs in the country from the get-go by taking two of three games at then-No. 1 Texas. It was a signature accomplishment for Birmingham's program, much like the two-game sweep of 2009 over No. 3 Texas A&M. But the Lobos of 2009 did not make the NCAA playoffs.
The pressure of that haunting NCAA invite was something Birmingham admits he carried into and throughout the 2010 season. "There was a lot of stress because we were good enough to go this season, but we were good enough to go last season," said Birmingham. "It was something we just needed to get done."
It was a pressure that dissolved when UNM finished second to Top Ten TCU in the Mountain West Conference regular season and second to TCU in the MWC tourney. It was clear that Horned Frogs and Lobos had established themselves as the cream of the MWC crop. The Lobos ended their 48-year-old drought by powering into the postseason with 12 players hitting .300 or better and a pitching staff featuring better raw talent and improved depth.
"Hitting was never a question," said Birmingham. "What made the difference was our pitching."
The invite to the NCAA tourney hit Birmingham on several levels. He ho-hummed the invite a bit because the snubbed Lobos of 2009 had gained great respect on the diamond, despite not reaching postseason. He also recognized the need for NCAA validation with Lobo fans and Lobo recruits.
The crusty Lobo veteran was teary eyed during the NCAA Selection Show that included New Mexico on the guest list.
"It's huge," he said of the NCAA bid. "It's another important indicator as to where your program is. There are kids who weren't that interested in UNM, who are very interested now. It's one more piece of the pie that validates that our program is going to be one of the very best in the country."
The Lobos punched their NCAA ticket in 2010 with improved pitching, improved team chemistry down the stretch, and that same-old Lobo way of pounding the baseball.
The hitting thing was no surprise. The Lobos led the nation in hitting in 2009. But the year of 2010 also was defined by Birmingham's crafty way of massaging quality performances out of several Lobo arms, who rose above the pack, including Willy Kesler, Kenny Toves, Richard Olson and Rudy Jaramillo.
"It was some times hard to find who was going to be on that day," said Birmingham. "We got a better feel for it toward the end of the season. Pitching is something that has really improved in Lobo baseball, and we are making strides to make sure that's a constant in this program."
The Lobos moved on to play Minnesota, an upset winner over Cal State Fullerton. UNM lost the nation's leading hitter, Justin Howard, in the first inning to injury, but pushed Minnesota into extra innings before losing 6-4. UNM was knocked out of the Fullerton Regional by the host Cal State Fullerton Titans. UNM ended the season at 38-22.
"I'm excited watching this program continue to climb," said Birmingham. "We have jumped into the national rankings and we make the NCAA playoffs for the first time in 48 years. And this is only the third year of this program."
Birmingham's program also continues to push Lobos to the next level. When the dust of the 2010 season settled, five Lobos were drafted: Ryan Honeycutt, Kenny Toves, Rafael Neda, Willy Kesler, and Justin Howard.
As it is with Lobo baseball, the individual drafted was just as happy for his teammates. "I'm happy to see the others get drafted and I'm excited for them," said Honeycutt. Said Kesler: "As a Lobo, you might move on as an individual, but you accomplish things as part of a team."
Howard was named to the Ping!Baseball All-American third team and the Louisville Slugger All-American third team, but he probably could have been higher on either list based on his hitting stats.
The powerful senior led the nation in hits with 119, tied for the top spot in batting average at .456 and was No. 2 in the NCAA with 32 doubles. UNM catcher Rafael Neda also made the Louisville Slugger third team. It was the sixth All-America award as a Lobo.
"I couldn't have done any of this without my team, my coaches," said Howard.
The Lobos dominated the MWC hitting stats leading the league in batting average (.350) and hits (736). The UNM pitching staff was second in the conference with a 5.36 ERA. It's that balance at the plate and on the mound that Birmingham plans to make a trademark of his program. "I still want recruits to know if you come to New Mexico, you will learn how to hit and have success at the plate," said Birmingham. "But we are building balance in our program. We take pride in our hitting, but we take pride in pitching, too.
"We've made some great strides in a short time, but we are just getting started. I'm more motivated than ever because it's obvious that there is no reason New Mexico baseball can't go to the top of the mountain."