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Stevens: Lobos End 48-year Drought With NCAA Tourney Bid
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  05/31/2010
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics
Championship Bracket
• Ticket\ Information\ for\ Fullerton\ Regional

May 31, 2010

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

When a drought of 48 years comes to an end, it's probably fitting for a few tears to be shed and for a hard-nosed coach with a marshmallow heart to be momentarily overwhelmed by this NCAA cloudburst.

Lobo coach Ray Birmingham and his gutsy 2010 University of New Mexico Lobos finally kicked down an NCAA door that has been slammed in Lobo faces since 1962. UNM is on the road to Omaha and the first step on that long and challenging path begins Friday in the Cal State Fullerton Regional.

"Bring on the Cardinal," said Lobo senior Adam Courcha, referring to UNM's opening foe - the Stanford Cardinal. "This is for everyone. This is for the city of Albuquerque, the state of New Mexico, all Lobos.

An emotional day
For Coach Ray


"This is for Lobo baseball which hasn't been there in 48 years."

The Lobos gathered as a team and as a family Monday morning at Coaches Grill on Central, Ave., and bunched around tables watching the NCAA bracket unfold. The Lobos looked like kids waiting to see if Santa Claus really would climb down the chimney - especially when a couple of regional sites the Lobos had been projected (unofficially) to make went by with no mention of New Mexico.

"I was ready to pull my hair out," said Courcha. "I saw a couple of regions we were projected to go in just slip by and you start to wonder. Then that commercial break came and it was pretty nerve wracking."

Said Lobo pitcher Willy Kesler: "We were starting to think, `Man, did we get skipped by again.' We were getting nervous. When I saw New Mexico up there, it was relief, shock, excitement, every emotion."

Said catcher Rafael Neda about when he saw New Mexico on the bracket: "I couldn't even make it up from my seat. There was no reaction for a while."

There was some immediate reaction from Birmingham, the coach New Mexico plucked out of New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs and entrusted with the task of placing Lobos into a world of baseball they hadn't seen in 48 years - the world of NCAA postseason.

Birmingham knocked down that NCAA door in his third season and had his foot in the door in 2009.

"Last year, we felt like we played good enough to get in and they didn't let us in," said UNM's top hitter, Justin Howard. "A few teams went by and we had some nervous energy building up, like, `Ah, dude, not again.' When we saw our name up there, everyone went wild."

Birmingham went wild, too. He threw out a shout, exchanged a few hugs and then was struck by a wave of emotion. He dabbed some dust out of his eyes, sat down on a chair, and wrapped his head in his hands.

Of course, soon he was thinking about baseball and Stanford and winning. "The euphoria is going to end in about one hour when I start getting dressed for practice," said Birmingham.

The Lobos region isn't going to be easy, but, hey, this is the NCAA playoffs. The No. 1 seed in UNM's opening round is Cal State Fullerton. The Titans are 41-15 and have danced to Omaha and all the way to an NCAA crown. The Titans open with Minnesota (30-28). This four-team regional is double elimination. There are lots of keys to winning it, but the first one is don't fall into the losers' bracket.

The Cal State Fullerton regional is paired with the Los Angeles regional that features UCLA, the No. 6 overall seed in the NCAA bracket. The Bruins feature one of the top pitching staffs in NCAA ball. That LA group also features LSU, UC Irvine and Kent State.

It won't be easy for anyone. "When you are among the Top 64 teams in the country, it doesn't make a difference who you play," said Birmingham. "It's going to be hard."

The Lobos punched their ticket to the NCAA by finishing second to TCU in the Mountain West Conference regular season and finishing runners-up to the Horned Frogs in last week's MWC tourney in San Diego. They also punched it by playing a courageous schedule, beating then No. 1 Texas and beating ranked TCU.

"48 years (without an NCAA bid) is incredible to me," said Tim Cass, UNM's Senior Associate Director of Athletics. "I'm so proud of the players and the coaches. This is a huge step in getting that monkey off your back; 48 years is a long time. To see the reaction of the kids was incredibly special to me."

The Lobos players obviously felt good for all Lobos on this day the door to the NCAA playoffs got kicked down. But you could also tell the players understood what the moment meant to Birmingham.

"He works so hard for us every single day," said Neda. "He deserves this."

Said Courcha: "He has done so much for our program. He has been the man here in New Mexico when it comes to Lobo baseball. He got a little teary and emotional there for a little while, but that's coach Ray. That shows how much he cares about Lobo baseball."

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SUPER REGION FIELD

Cal-Fullerton Regional
1. Cal-Fullerton (41-15)
2. Stanford (31-23)
3. New Mexico (37-20)
4. Minnesota (30-28)

Los Angeles Regional
1. UCLA (43-13)
2. LSU (40-20)
3. UC Irvine (37-19)
4. Kent State (39-23)

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Birmingham had said missing the 2009 NCAA bracket made him feel like a man crawling across a desert, dying of thirst, and finding a drink of water just beyond his grasp.

The Lobos and Birmingham finally reached that NCAA oasis. It was probably fitting that Birmingham provided a bit of the water works - and tossed the credit for the successful journey in several directions.

"A lot of people have worked hard for this. A lot of Lobos who didn't make it to the NCAAs are why we are here now," said Birmingham. "This is an `us' and `we' deal. This isn't about any one specific person. This is about Albuquerque and the great state of New Mexico.

"A lot of people bought into this dream and then rolled up their sleeves and did what it takes to make it happen. Now, we are going to roll up our sleeves again and do whatever we can to keep the dream alive. The Lobos have a few more games to win."

LOBOS AT THE NCAA REGIONALS The Lobos' lone trip to the NCAA Regional came in 1962. New Mexico won the Eastern Division of the Skyline Conference and traveled to Greeley, Colo., on May 31 - June 2 for the tournament. The Lobos defeated BYU in the first round, 9-2. UNM lost to Northern Colorado, 11-2, and was eliminated from postseason play by Air Force, 2-1.

NEW MEXICO 2010 SEASON RECAP
• Record: 37-20 overall, 14-8 in the Mountain West Conference
• Batting Average: .350 - 5th in the nation, 1st in the MWC, Hits: 736 - 7th in the nation, 1st in the MWC, Doubles: 157 - 7th in the nation, 2nd in the MWC.
• Currently ranked No. 48 in NCAA RPI as of Sunday, May 30, 2010
• Defeated then-ranked No. 1 Texas, 6-5 and 3-1 on February 20-21 in Austin at Disch Falk Field.
• Ranked as high as No. 24 in Ping!baseball's top-30 Poll and has received votes all season long in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association top-30 poll and USA Today Coaches top-25 poll.
• Achieved the highest RPI ranking in school history at No. 24.
• Currently 4-6 against top-25 teams this season and 3-3 against top-5 teams.
• Ranked in the top-10 in the nation all season in batting average and in the top-20 in doubles, triples and hits.
• In consecutive games, the Lobos held No. 4 TCU to its lowest hit total of the season with five on May 7 and four on May 8.
• Ended a two-year regular season losing streak to TCU with a 3-2 win on May 7. New Mexico's last win over TCU in regular season play was on March 22, 2008.
• The Lobos lost a pair of game to then-ranked No. 8/8 Arkansas in Fayetteville and were given a standing ovation by more than 8,000 Razorback fans for the quality of baseball that New Mexico produced.
• New Mexico has two quality wins over Texas, New Mexico State and Southern California, five wins over San Diego State and one win apiece over Texas Tech and TCU. All six teams have been ranked in the top-100 in RPI.
• Texas and Texas Tech are currently ranked first and second, respectively in the Big 12 Conference. New Mexico State is ranked second in the Western Athletic Conference.
• New Mexico is the only team to have beaten Texas twice this season and to have taken a series from the Longhorns.
• Current RPI rankings for opponents in the top-100 (as of May 11, 2010): Texas - 5, TCU - 14, Arizona - 25, Texas Tech - 44, USC - 63, New Mexico State - 77, San Diego State - 93. Lobos' record against - 12-9.

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