ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – If someone asked you to name the 18 schools that had made each of the last four NCAA tournaments, some would be easy to guess.
National champions such as UCLA (2013) and South Carolina (2010, 2011) are on the list. So is Florida, which finished second in 2011. Also included are national powers like Florida St., Oklahoma, Miami (Fla.), North Carolina, as well as schools from non-BCS conferences like the 2003 national champions, Rice, and four-time title winner Cal St. Fullerton. In fact, the 18 schools on the list have combined to win 16 College World Series titles.
You would also likely incorrectly guess several national powers like Texas and LSU (six national titles each), Arizona (four titles) and Arizona St. (five titles), and maybe even Southern Cal (a whopping 12 national titles).
But you know who is on that list of 18? No, not Stanford, which had the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft. Not former Mountain West rival TCU, either. Not even North Carolina St., which will likely have two of the Top 10 picks in the MLB Draft next June.
But would you guess the University of New Mexico Lobos? Unless you’ve followed head coach Ray Birmingham’s squad closely the past few years you might have missed that fact, but it’s true. UNM is one of just four schools west of Texas, and one of four schools from a non-BCS conference, on the list.
Also impressive is the fact that every other school on the list has a long history of baseball success, as each has made the NCAA tournament at least 12 times. The Lobos on the other hand, had only made it once prior to Birmingham’s arrival in 2008, and that was all the way back in 1962.
“This shows that the University of New Mexico is on its way to becoming a big-time baseball school,” Birmingham said.
There’s no denying that. In the six years since Birmingham’s arrival the Lobos have averaged nearly 34 wins per season. Prior to 2008, UNM had reached that plateau only eight times in 108 years of baseball. Now, though, that is seen as the standard instead of the outlier.
UNM's run began in the 2010 season with national batting champion Justin Howard and All-American catcher Rafael Neda leading the way. A knee injury to Howard in the Lobos' second NCAA regional game proved too much to overcome as UNM lost in extra innings to Minnesota before being eliminated by Cal St. Fullerton the next day.
In 2011 a young Lobo team took its fair share of lumps against a brutal schedule, but the team rallied to sweep through the Mountain West Tournament behind the play of Tournament MVP and Freshman All-American DJ Peterson. The Lobos had regional host Arizona St. on the ropes in the opening game, only to suffer a heart-breaking walk-off defeat.
The 2012 squad was once again led by Peterson and fellow All-American Mitch Garver, as well as Freshman All-America honoree Ryan Padilla, as the team won 37 games and won both the Mountain West regular season and tournament titles. UNM once again won its opening game in the regionals, shutting out high-powered San Diego 4-0, before losing two straight.
Birmingham's best team may have been the 2013 squad that returned virtually its entire lineup, including Peterson, Garver and Padilla, and added Freshman All-American Sam Haggerty. The Lobos dominated the Mountain West, setting a conference record with 25 wins and finishing a record seven games ahead of the second-place team. UNM returned to Fullerton, the site of their 2010 regional, and suffered a pair of devastating one-run losses to see its season come to an early end.
If the Lobos are to make it five straight appearances in 2014 they will have to replace a lot of production. UNM will have plenty of talent, though, including Padilla and Haggerty. Josh Walker was named a Preseason All-American by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers association, becoming the first pitcher in school history to earn that honor. Also back are catcher Alex Real, outfielders Chase Harris and John Pustay, who is fully healthy for the first time since 2012, and pitcher Drew Bridges, a converted infielder who burst onto the scene as a freshman last season and shut down No. 10 Arkansas in a 3-0 win on April 9.
The team opens its season on the road with a three-game series at the University of San Diego on Friday, Feb. 14. The home season begins the following Friday, Feb. 21, against Northern Illinois in the Lobo Invite at Lobo Field. Fans can gain access to all Lobo home games with the Lobo Pride Pass. For more information or to purchase a Lobo Pride pass click here or call the UNM ticket office at 925-LOBO.
Teams That Have Made Four Straight NCAA Regional Appearances
1. Arkansas (SEC, 26 appearances, 12 straight)
2. Cal St. Fullerton (Big West, 35 appearances, 22 straight)
3. Clemson (ACC, 38 appearances, five straight)
4. Coastal Carolina (Big South, 12 appearances, four straight)
5. Florida (SEC, 29 appearances, six straight)
6. Florida State (ACC, 51 appearances, 36 straight)
7. Georgia Tech (ACC, 28 appearances, six straight)
8. Miami (Fla.) (ACC, 42 appearances, 42 straight)
9. New Mexico (Mountain West, five appearances, four straight)
10. North Carolina (ACC, 28 appearances, 12 straight)
11. Oklahoma (Big 12, 35 appearances, six straight)
12. Oregon St. (Pac-12, 14 appearances, five straight)
13. Rice (Conference USA, 19 appearances, 19 straight)
14. South Carolina (SEC, 29 appearances, 14 straight)
15. Texas A&M (SEC, 29 appearances, six straight)
16. UCLA (Pac-12, 19 appearances, four straight)
17. Vanderbilt (SEC, 12 appearances, eight straight)
18. Virginia (ACC, 13 appearances, 10 straight)