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Graney: UNLV baseball has chance to deliver special season

Updated April 11, 2022 - 5:05 pm

Stan Stolte would prefer to wait a month to gauge where his most recent UNLV baseball team compares to those past.

He just knows how badly it wants to win.

“They care about that a lot,” he said.

It’s a grind. So when a weekend such as the past one occurs, best to keep things in perspective. The Rebels had won 11 of 12 before UNR hit town and, well, hit.

The Wolf Pack took two of three in the series — two games went extra innings — that saw the teams combine for 68 runs. Bats were swung and pitches crushed by two of the better hitting teams nationally.

One-bid league

The hard part: UNLV (21-11, 12-3 Mountain West), which remained alone in first place after Sunday’s 9-8 win in 10 innings, entered the weekend with the conference’s second-best RPI. It’s now in the 108 range.

Which means the conference again appears to be a one-bid NCAA Tournament league.

Which means winning the conference tournament is likely the only avenue to a regional.

Doesn’t make it right. Winning a league that spans 30 games should mean something. It just doesn’t. Not when you call the Mountain West home. Not in most years.

“This is probably the best all-around team we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said UNLV junior infielder Edarian Williams, a former Rancho High standout, after a 22-13 defeat to the Wolf Pack on Saturday. “Losing (the first two to UNR) sucks, but it’s part of it. We have to show some fight and get through the adversity. That’s what good teams do.”

He then backed up his words. Williams hit a two-out, three-run homer in the ninth to force extra innings Sunday.

Listen. At some point, you have to pitch. It can sort of be like non-Power Five basketball teams searching for a dominant big man. There are just so many available, and all the polished ones usually choose major programs.

But while most pitchers at the Mountain West level need to be developed over time, Stolte and his staff have done much better than others. In fact, Stolte has guided 36 pitchers to all-conference team recognition. Nine of the past 11 were drafted by MLB teams.

Here’s something that also hasn’t changed at UNLV: The Anthony and Lyndy Marnell III Clubhouse continues to pay dividends. Because in the long-since established arms race that is collegiate athletics, a two-story complex that has 10,000 square feet with things like indoor batting cages and a weight room and academic areas and a team locker room has a way of catching a recruit’s eye.

“Before it, we didn’t have anything,” Stolte said. “Now, nobody will not come here because of our clubhouse.”

And they’re coming, locally and otherwise.

California kids

You’re not going to win at UNLV without having some level of recruiting base in Southern California, where there are more talented players than grains of sand. The Rebels list 14 players from the Golden State. They list 14 from Las Vegas and 15 in all within Nevada. It’s the right balance.

If any under Stolte, this team ultimately might be compared to that of 2018, when the Rebels won 35 games and were ranked as high as 19th nationally. They were 11-1 and 20-3 at different points. Finished second at the conference tournament. Didn’t make a regional. Yeah. Life in the Mountain West.

“We’re going to have to defend and pitch well out of the bullpen,” said Stolte, named the full-time coach in 2016. “We have some guys doing it — we just have to get more consistent. It’s an offensive league. Everybody hits and score runs, and a lot of parks are better for the offense, so that’s a double whammy.”

Give him a month and then he can fairly gauge things.

This much we know: His team wants to win as much as any he has had.

Probably more.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.