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Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- UNO coach Blake Dean coaches against LSU on March 16 at Alex Box Stadium.

Advocate file photo by HILARY SCHEINUK

Simply qualifying for the Southland Conference tournament was a massive accomplishment for UNO baseball under first-year coach Blake Dean in 2016.

To take the next step — competing for an NCAA regional berth — the Privateers will have to handle a different level of expectations.

“Last year’s team didn’t have expectations,” Dean said. “We were just trying to get better. This team is more talented. I just want to see if they are as gritty and as tough as those guys were last year.”

UNO finished 31-26 after a bleak period that began with an aborted decision to drop to Division III that was proposed in 2009. The once-proud program — the first in Louisiana to reach the College World Series (1984) — plummeted to 13-39, 4-50, 17-27, 7-44, 11-38 and 14-40 seasons from 2010-15.

The transformation with Dean was immediate. The Privateers won 16 of their first 20 games, including a dramatic comeback from a 6-1 deficit to beat Tulane 10-9 at Maestri Field.

Although they faltered later in the year, their 14-16 mark in the Southland dwarfed their miserable 5-55 mark from their first two seasons in the league and was good enough for a tie for seventh place.

With 24 new faces surrounding nine key returners, UNO hopes to build on that turnaround behind a potent lineup that hit .300 and averaged 6.7 runs.

Dean’s brother, third baseman Dakota Dean, is one of three UNO seniors on the preseason Southland Conference first team after hitting .321 with six triples and 45 RBIs last year.

The other two are shortstop Aaron Palmer, who batted a team-best .325 with 57 runs scored and 19 stolen bases, and designated hitter Hezekiah Randolph, who hit .318 with a team-high 16 doubles while matching Dean’s 45 RBIs.

“We just have to keep improving and stay locked in like we were last year,” Dakota Dean said. “I don’t think people are going to take us as the underdog because we kind of make ourselves known.”

The remaining returning starters are senior shortstop Sam Capielano, from Holy Cross, and right fielder Jay Robinson, who is out indefinitely with a knee injury.

A Delgado transfer, former Jesuit catcher Spencer Miller, could shore up one of the four open spots, but Blake Dean is looking for increased competition across the board. Last year, no UNO reserve played more than 16 games or started more than seven.

Pitching was a problem a year ago (the team had a 5.39 ERA) and could be again because the Privateers have to replace bullpen stalwart Daniel Martinez, who had 12 saves and posted the only sub-4.00 ERA (2.75) on the team.

Weekend starters Riley Hodge (4-4, 4.23), Shawn Semple (5-5, 4.50), and Bryan Warzek (2-3, 5.73) return, but the whole staff remains a work in progress under new pitching coach Rudy Darrow.

“I’m not sold that we’re really going to make a huge jump with our pitching, but with some new guys and some new beliefs and philosophies, we’ll make an improvement,” Dean said. “We still don’t have that shutdown guy like Daniel Martinez. Hopefully somebody will step up during the course of the season.”

Dean has set a team goal of 40 victories he admits will be difficult to achieve, but no one expected the Privateers to get anywhere near 30 last season. Picked eighth in the 13-team Southland this time after being tabbed last year a year ago, they hope to prove the skeptics wrong again.

“We want to be known as winners,” Dean said. “We’re trying to get rid of that stigma of UNO the last few years and move forward from that.”