UNLV coach Tim Chambers wasn’t about to argue when the Rebels were picked to finish fifth in the six-team Mountain West baseball league.
He had his own doubts before the season, scanning the schedule for victories and not finding many. The Rebels would start to win, Chambers was certain, but it wouldn’t be this season, his third at the school.
He was wrong, of course, and happy to have misjudged a team with little depth and an odd combination of players and positions not exactly matching up.
Those players came together to go 37-20. While the Rebels fell short of an NCAA regional bid, they posted the program’s best record since the 2003 team went 47-17. UNLV gained its most wins since the 2004 team also had 37.
“We really had some competitors that just felt like we were going to win,” Chambers said. “It was disappointing when we didn’t get a bid.”
Chambers’ expectations for the season began to be revised in early March when the Rebels went to Stanford and swept the then-No. 9 team in the nation.
That helped UNLV to a 14-3 start, and though the Rebels did not maintain that hot pace, they surge late in the regular season by winning nine of their last 11.
Even with a thin roster containing only three middle infielders, no first basemen and many ailing players going into the season, the Rebels found ways to win.
Chambers said the players not only got along, they fought for each other, and wanted badly to win for him. Pitcher Buddy Borden even texted Chambers his apologies for losing a conference tournament game against New Mexico; Chambers quickly absolved him.
That all-for-one attitude was a product of the best chemistry Chambers has seen in one of his teams since he coached Community College of Southern Nevada to the junior college national championship in 2003.
“Our chemistry won us 10 to 14 games,” he said. “If you don’t have good chemistry, you’re not going to win anything. If you have good chemistry, it’s like they freakin’ bleed for each other.”
Maintaining that togetherness could be a challenge with the annual turnover of a college roster, but Chambers said he is confident the returning players will help hold newcomers accountable.
UNLV loses some key players — three-time All-Mountain West outfielder Brandon Bayardi, center field defensive wizard Mark Shannon and possibly conference co-pitcher of the year Borden, a junior who could be a draft pick who goes in the top 10 rounds.
Most players return, though, such as ace Erick Fedde and slugger Patrick Armstrong, whose batting average was north of .400 most of the season.
The Rebels are bringing in a recruiting haul of six junior college players and five high school prospects. This year’s success made the program an easier sell.
“They’re calling us now,” Chambers said. “They want to come here now, and that’s huge, whereas before you’re having to sell, ‘Hey, I promise we’re going to win.’ ”
UNLV plays a demanding schedule next season — home and home against Arizona State and trips to Cal State Fullerton, Nebraska, Arkansas and Tennessee — so Chambers said the team could play even better than this year and not have the victories to show for it.
But he expects enough wins, whatever the total, to make a regional. Anything less would be a disappointment.
His vision, however, extends far beyond next season. Chambers wants the Rebels to be a regular participant in the postseason, a program that makes deep runs, one that serves as a regional host, one that makes it all the way to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.
Can UNLV accomplish all that?
The program already is a year ahead of schedule, and even though Chambers loves to play small ball in games, he’s thinking home runs for the big picture.
“We shouldn’t wish or wonder if we’re going to get to a regional,” Chambers said. “We should wonder where we’re going every year.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.