With the regular season winding down, every game grows more important for the UNO baseball team, but the message from coach Blake Dean to his players won’t change.
Despite his team exceeding expectations all year, the objective remains the same.
“Making the (Southland Conference) tournament has been a goal of ours all year,” Dean said. “We have already made huge strides this season, but making the tournament would be icing on the cake.”
With only three conference series left, the time is now for the Privateers to start working to secure their spot in the SLC tournament, which begins May 20 in Sugar Land, Texas.
UNO (26-17, 10-11) is tied for sixth place in the conference as it goes on the road this weekend for a series at Abilene Christian (13-28, 5-16). Each of UNO’s nine remaining games against Southland foes will be vital to keeping its postseason hopes alive.
The Privateers are one of seven teams — joining Northwestern State, McNeese State, Nicholls State, Stephen F. Austin, Houston Baptist and Central Arkansas — that likely will be fighting for the final five spots in the tournament’s eight-team field.
“We talk about (the conference race) at the start of each series,” Dean said. “We talk where we are at the beginning of the series and where we could be at the end of the series.”
The unpredictable nature of the Southland Conference tournament over the years adds a little extra motivation. A team seeded fourth or lower has won the tournament seven of the past eight seasons, including each of the past four years, which gives the Privateers a realistic shot at making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008.
“We’ve told the them, once you get to the tournament, it’s anyone’s game,” Dean said. “Lots of things can happen in a double-elimination tournament, if you get there.”
After suffering through a six-game losing streak midway through the conference schedule, UNO has picked things up of late, winning eight of its past 10 games. Much of the team’s improved play can be credited to its offensive resurgence — 82 runs over the past 10 games — but Dean said he believes it came from another source.
“Just the team being tough,” he said. “It’s been a season with limited numbers and lots of injuries, but these guys have done a great job being tough and finding ways to win.”
One of those injuries the Privateers will be dealing with is the loss of the team’s top starting pitcher, Shawn Semple. The sophomore exited early from his last start against Central Arkansas with discomfort in his throwing hand and, with his return uncertain, the Privateers lose arguably their most reliable hurler.
Semple has gone at least six innings in nine of his 11 starts, but Dean said his team will have to find a way to fight through adversity one more time.
“It will be a big blow losing your Friday night arm on a staff that is already thin,” he said. “This again will be a situation where someone must step up and find a way to lead this team.”