Southland strong: UNO baseball makes its SLC tournament debut Wednesday against Southeastern Louisiana _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ-- University of New Orleans outfielder Chaz Boyer (1) hits a single and drives in a run as his team plays Tulane at Turchin Stadium at Tulane in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, May 10, 2016.

Most people don’t like waking up at 6:30 a.m. for a five-hour road trip, but coach Blake Dean and his UNO baseball team couldn’t wait to do just that Tuesday.

The Privateers (30-23) embarked on that trip Tuesday, en route to their first appearance in the Southland Conference tournament at Constellation Field in Sugar Land, Texas. UNO, making its first trip to a postseason tournament since 2008, goes into the double-elimination tournament as the No. 7 seed. It will face No. 2 seed Southeastern Louisiana at noon Wednesday to continue what Dean called a “very rewarding” season.

“This team came out and surpassed all expectations myself or anyone else had for them,” the first-year coach said. “We were projected to finish dead last in the conference before the season, and that obviously won’t be happening. I appreciate hard work and determination, and that’s what this team has built themselves off of this year.”

That hard work and determination was necessary because it was only three years ago that the Privateers joined the Southland following a short departure from Division I athletics after budget issues dismantled many of UNO’s programs. In his first season after the retirement of Ron Maestri, Dean has led the Privateers to their first 30-win season in eight years and has quickly turned around a team that won a combined five games against SLC opponents in the previous two seasons.

“It just shows how good UNO can be if people believe and buy into it,” Dean said. “Coach Maestri proved it can be a powerhouse in college baseball. He laid down the foundation for everyone, and we just have to continue working hard and see where that road takes us.”

Coincidentally, the No. 7 seed has won the SLC tournament four times since 2009, and only one team seeded better than fourth has won the tournament in the past seven seasons.

“It sure gives us something to use as motivation,” Dean said. “You just have to play hard, have a little luck and the cards will fall into place.”

If the Privateers want to be the team that continues that trend, they must find a way to get over a recent slump that led to them ending the season on a five-game losing streak. While Dean said there were several reasons behind the team’s decline, much of it begins with its struggles in the batter’s box.

UNO ended the season with the most hits (572) and the third-most runs (368) in the SLC but, in those last five losses, the Privateers only managed a combined 17 runs.

“Our offense has carried us all year, and they are going to have to do it again in this tournament,” Dean said. “When we hit, we win. When we don’t, it’s a coin flip.”

One point of optimism for Dean was how the Privateers moved ahead of Nicholls State and Stephen F. Austin in the final conference standings, despite having the same 14-16 record in league play.

The Privateers moved up to No. 7 in the standings and squeaked into the tournament because of series wins over the top two teams in the conference, Southeastern and Sam Houston State.

Dean said that shows how his team can rise to the occasion when playing tough competition, and he hopes it can display that grit again Wednesday.

“That Southeastern series was probably the best we played over a weekend the whole year,” he said. “It just shows our guys seem to play better against higher-caliber teams.”