May 27, 2014
ARLINGTON, Texas – A losing record seemed inevitable. UT Arlington was sitting 5-14 after being swept by rival Texas State to open the Sun Belt Conference season.
Never mind making a run to the NCAA Tournament, reaching the conference tournament appeared to be a stretch. The Mavericks were in bad shape, and they knew it. They also refused to give up on the season.
"At Texas State we had a bad weekend to open up, and we just stayed positive," UT Arlington coach Darin Thomas said. "This is a good group of guys, and you have to stay with it. The biggest thing is we had to readjust our goals. We had bigger expectations coming into the season and that played out at the end of the year, but we're you're 5-14 going to Omaha and those type of things don't look like they're right there."
After losing two of three to Arkansas State at home, the Mavericks were 1-5 in league play. The turnaround began the following Tuesday with a 14-3 win over Baylor at Clay Gould Ballpark.
UTA swept South Alabama on the road to get back in the Sun Belt race. The Mavericks would lose only one of their last eight conference series, going 18-6 down the stretch to finish 19-11 in the SBC.
"We knew that is was going to be tough," Thomas said of the SBC debut season. "We do play a tough schedule. We're in the middle of a lot of Big 12 schools and we play a lot of good people, so I think our schedule every year will help us get ready for that. We knew it was going to be a tough league and we weren't disappointed."
The Mavericks entered the Sun Belt Championship as the No. 2 seed and one of the hottest teams in the country. UTA won its first three tournament games, extending its winning streak to 10, to reach the finals before falling to top seed Louisiana 6-5. A win would have put the Mavericks in the NCAA Tournament.
"We had to readjust our goals and, give our guys credit, they did," Thomas said. "They kept working, they stayed positive, they hung in there and things started changing. And we were a very good road team. When we traveled, we were good. That's the sign of some mature guys."
The Mavericks finished 33-26 after winning 17 of their final 20 games. UTA has won at least 30 games for the last three seasons, which included the 2012 Southland Conference Tournament championship and 2013 WAC regular-season title.
UTA developed into one of the top offensive teams in the country. The Mavericks hit .296 for the season, with seven everyday players hitting better than .300. UTA slugged 48 home runs – good for fifth in the program's history – led by senior catcher Greg McCall's 11 and senior designated hitter Matt Shortall's 10.
The pitcher staff featured three starters with at least five wins – senior Daniel Milliman (6-0), senior Brad Vachon (5-5) and junior Zach Thompson (5-4). Junior reliever Chad Nack had a team-best 1.26 ERA, and tied junior Jess Amedee with the team lead for saves (4).
The Mavericks placed Shortall and junior outfielder Ryan Bottger on the All-Sun Belt first team. Shortall, Thompson, junior shortstop Travis Sibley and sophomore second baseman Darien McLemore were named to the all-tournament team.
Bottger hit a team-best .368 with seven homers and 42 RBI. Shortall hit .344 with 10 home runs and a team-high 57 RBI. The Dallas native leaves UT Arlington having set the single-season record for doubles this season (26). Shortall is also tied for fifth in career home runs at UTA with 24 despite playing only three years.
"Coming to UTA was one of the best decisions I've made in my life," Shortall said. "It's been a long journey. There have been a ton of ups and downs, and it's crazy to think that it is over now. I can't say enough how much this team battled through adversity. We were 5-14, and we got all the way to 33 wins. That's huge.
"That just shows how good of a team we were. We came together so well. I think this program has such a huge future that is going to continue to build every year. I'll be following from afar and it will be really interesting. Overall, I'm just so proud of everybody. I can't thank the coaching staff and players enough for letting me be a part of this season. It was a really fun ride."
Shortall was part of an 11-member senior class that rode the conference roller coaster. Chase Weaver, Brandon Vinyard, Vachon, John Michael Twichell, Milliman, Greg McCall, Keegan Hucul, Peter Cuomo, Justin Copeland and Kasey Merck also completed their eligibility.
"It's a good senior class," Thomas said. "We've played for three championships in three years in three different conferences."
Now that the program has found a stable conference home, the Mavericks can focus on establishing a successful foothold in the Sun Belt.
"We've created a tradition of winning championships and that we have the ability to do that," Bottger said. "We'll come back fighting."