June 3, 2010
Lobos at NCAAs -- Cal State Fullerton Region
Friday: Lobos vs. Stanford, 5 p.m. (MT); Cal Fullerton vs. Minnesota, 9 p.m. (MT)
Saturday: Winners play at 9 p.m. (MT); losers play at 5 p.m. (MT)
Lobos Live On: 101.7 FM The TEAM, GameTracker, ESPNU
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
The euphoria, the hugging, the ending of a dismal 48-year NCAA drought, are all behind the New Mexico Lobos now -- teardrops under the bridge.
The goal of cracking the NCAA field is history and another goal has taken its place: win and advance.
"We aren't just satisfied being there. We want to do some damage and win some games," said Lobo senior Justin Howard.
In a way - and despite that 48-year stain on Lobo baseball history -- the easiest part is over. The NCAA field pulls in 64 teams and the Lobos of Ray Birmingham are good enough to make that field time and time again. This is just the beginning.
However, advancing in NCAA play isn't so easy. "These guys are all good," said Birmingham.
Said Lobo catcher Rafael Neda: "We are looking at really good teams, so it doesn't matter where we are or who we play. There are good teams everywhere now and you just have to go out there and play."
The Lobos open with Stanford University (31-23), a proud NCAA institute draped in a history of achievement and national titles. The tradition-rich Cardinal aren't even the top seed in the Cal State Fullerton region. Stanford is No. 2, Fullerton is No. 1, and UNM is No. 3 followed by No. 4 Minnesota of the Big Ten.
"Stanford is a great team with a history of going to the World Series," said Howard. "But we're ready to play."
And look what the road after Fullerton could bring: UCLA, Texas, TCU, Florida State, Miami, Florida, Arizona State, Oklahoma. The NCAA has pulled the monsters of the diamond into this NCAA fight and the road to the 2010 National Championship is lined with bullies of the bat and maulers on the mound.
The march to the top of the NCAA dog pile goes like this:
Regionals: Four teams in a double-elimination shootout at 16 locations.
Super Regionals: The 16 survivors meet in eight Super Regionals - best of three games.
World Series: The eight Super Regional winners advance to Omaha. There will be two, four-team, double-elimination brackets. The two winners go best-of-three for the 2010 title.
A team could conceivable play 16 games to win the title. It's easy to see why quality pitching and pitching depth is such a premium in this tournament. You win a College World Series and you have played some serious baseball. The Lobos are in Fullerton, Calif., to get serious.
"We're going to California to win a regional, not just compete in one," said Birmingham. "If we do what we are capable of doing, those guys in California are in trouble."
Said senior Adam Courcha: "We are happy to be there, sure, but we are going there to win some games and do everything we can to extend our season."
The Lobos were an eyelash - and maybe one game -- away from making the NCAA field in 2009. They punched their ticket in 2010 with improved pitching, improved team chemistry and that same-old Lobo way of pounding the baseball.
The Lobos (37-20) have 12 players on their roster hitting .300 or better with Justin Howard (.455) and Chris Juarez (.406) at the top. The hitting thing has been a constant in Birmingham's program since he came up to Albuquerque three seasons ago from New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs.
What has changed is the stuff coming off the mound at the opposing hitters. "Our pitching is different this time," said Birmingham.
The Lobos have massaged their pitching staff well and have produced a number of solid starts including several starts off the arms of Willy Kesler (6-3), Kenny Toves (5-2), Richard Olson (4-3) and Rudy Jaramillo (4-2). The bullpen has had some shaky moments, but Birmingham usually keeps shaking until he finds a Lobo arm up to the task.
To advance in the NCAA bracket, the Lobos will need to find several arms up to the task, beginning with the Stanford game.
"They are a big, physical team, a power-hitting team," Birmingham said of the Cardinal. "But I love our chances. I think we can win this regional. I think we can beat anybody, any time, any place.
"This is a new Lobo program and put whoever you want in front of us. We'll play you. We'll beat you."
The Lobos obviously have the talent to play with any team in the field as shown in taking two of three from then-No. 1 Texas. The Lobos might have another edge. It is possible that a few teams might be overlooking a New Mexico team which hasn't been in the NCAA bracket since 1962.
"I'm sure people are saying, `New Mexico?' and underestimating us," said Kesler. "We say, `Bring it on.' This is a challenge for us, but we love challenges."
Birmingham said he thought one thing that hurt the Lobos' postseason run in 2009 was a team that got distracted by success and some of the attention that comes with success - like interest from the pro level.
"That hasn't happened here much before," said Birmingham. "I don't think some of the guys handled it well at the end. Some Lobos got distracted."
Kesler says that's not a problem this season. "I've noticed that this year the team is closer than any other year. We have been picking each other up all year. It's, `I got your back and you got my back.' I think that attitude has been huge for us this year."
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.