‘They deserve all the accolades:’ Former coach Ron Maestri excited by UNO baseball team’s resurgence _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- UNO coach Ron Maestri watches as his Privateers take on LSU on Tuesday, April 7, 2015, at Alex Box Stadium.

When UNO baseball coach Ron Maestri announced his retirement following the 2015 season, the Privateers lost the school’s all-time winningest coach and their most influential figure. But he hasn’t exactly gone anywhere.

The 75-year-old has been front and center for nearly every Privateers home game this year at the field that bears his name, and no one has been more excited about the team’s resurgence this year than him.

“I’ve just been ecstatic watching those guys and the season they’ve had this year,” Maestri said Monday. “With the talent we had coming back from last year and the recruits they brought in, I figured things would be progressing well. But those guys have played incredible this year, and they deserve all the accolades they are getting.”

Maestri coached the Privateers for 14 years during the most successful stretch in school history, registering 10 seasons of 34 or more wins, nine NCAA tournament appearances and two College World Series berths.

After UNO’s athletic program had major difficulties after Hurricane Katrina and temporarily planned to drop out of Division I, Maestri chose to come out of retirement in 2013 to help rejuvenate the program.

But after massive departures from the roster and significant budget cuts, Maestri suffered through two seasons when the team went a combined 25-78 before he decided to walk away from the game again.

“I knew what I was getting into when I came back, but I felt like I needed to do what I could to help,” he said. “I’ve always loved this school and this program, and when you see how bad things got at certain points, I thought I could do something to help get us back on the road to where we needed to be.”

That road to relevancy turned out to be a short one: UNO promoted assistant Blake Dean and, in his first year, the former LSU slugger has led the Privateers to their first 30-win season since 2008.

After struggling to a 14-40 record last year, UNO is 30-24 heading into the Southland Conference tournament. The Privateers open play as the No. 7 seed in the double-elimination event at noon Wednesday against No. 2 seed Southeastern Louisiana in Sugar Land, Texas.

The Privateers already have taken on Dean’s personality as a potent hitting team, vastly improving their numbers from last year in runs (202 to 368), hits (491 to 572) and home runs (eight to 35).

Dean gives much of the credit for his surprising first season to the time he spent learning as an assistant under Maestri and LSU coach Paul Mainieri.

“To follow a guy like Coach Maestri at UNO, where he has done so much for the school, it meant a lot to get his approval early on,” Dean said. “I tried to take as much as I could from Coach Maestri and Coach Mainieri and apply it to my style, and there’s no doubt learning from two guys that have done as much as they have helped me a ton.”

While Maestri has enjoyed seeing the team win more of late, part of the reason why he makes a point to go to as many games as he can is he knows how much it means to have people supporting the team.

“Winning is always a great place to start, but the team will never truly get back to where it needs to be unless the UNO community gets behind them,” he said. “I know Blake will do a great job with coaching the guys and recruiting, but he won’t ever have everything he needs until people get excited about the team and come out to watch them. I think he can eventually make that happen with the way the team is playing, but it’s just going to take some time.”

While more of Maestri’s time these days is spent with his family or fishing, his love for UNO baseball is as strong as ever.

“I’ll always love going out to the park and watching our guys play,” he said. “You’ll never be able to get that out of me.”