Locals lead Rebels’ baseball renaissance

This part still holds true for Tim Chambers when he thinks about recruiting a local prep baseball player:

Say the UNLV coach pursues the best third baseman in town, a star on all levels.

Say the young man chooses to go elsewhere.

You don’t then recruit the second-best third baseman.

You don’t keep dropping down the food chain of Las Vegas players.

“There still isn’t enough local talent to where you can win a championship without looking elsewhere,” Chambers said. “You fill your holes with the very top local players you can get and then go outside the state. But because of my relationships with people here over the years, we have been able to land some very good local players.

“And I couldn’t be happier it worked out for them as it has this season.”

The Rebels open play against Fresno State at 7 p.m. today at Wilson Stadium as the No. 1 seed in the Mountain West Tournament, a co-conference champion whose roster includes 15 players from the Las Vegas valley and 17 total from Nevada.

It was Chambers, in accepting the position in 2011, who said UNLV would have its first conference championship since 2005 within the first four years of his tenure.

This is his fourth season.

It’s what he sold the likes of junior third baseman T.J. White.

“Chambers promised us he would turn the program around and win a championship, and we did,” White said. “There are a lot of good players in Vegas now. I’d love to see more guys come to UNLV. Winning the conference will show them this is a good program, probably a lot better than they think.

“Great things are happening here. We’re changing the culture and how people view the program. We have fun. We play hard. We play the right way.”

Someone had to be the first, the key to others following.

For Chambers, it was White.

He was a part of four state championship teams at Bishop Gorman, the younger brother to former UNLV all-conference outfielder J.C. Sibley.

Once other top local players saw White commit to the Rebels, they also chose to make UNLV their college home, among them catcher Erik VanMeetren (Gorman), infielder Justin Jones (Gorman), outfielder Cody Howard (Coronado) and pitcher Cody Roper (Gorman).

A flatline is an electrical time sequence measurement that shows no activity and therefore, when represented, shows a flat line instead of a moving one. It’s how Chambers views White.

No matter how high or low things get, how well or poorly he plays, on a day he might tie his brother’s school record with seven hits or one in which he goes 0-for-5, White’s demeanor never changes.

He’s a flatliner who happened to start 53 of 54 games this season while hitting .313.

“I’ve known T.J. since he was 1, since he was running around fields in town with my daughter in diapers,” Chambers said. “This was the group of guys that were going to change the face of the program, and T.J. is a big reason for leading the way. He came in, and five or six others eventually jumped on board because of it. It means a lot for so many (local players) to be part of a championship.”

It’s no surprise that after the 17 players from Nevada, the next state most represented on UNLV’s team is California with nine. Cal Poly is ranked third nationally on the ESPN.com power rankings this week and doesn’t list a non-California player on its 32-man roster.

Cal Poly. Third in the country.

“There are 100 junior college players in California right now who could play for us,” Chambers said of that state’s wealth of talent.

So you sign those top local kids and you point your car down I-15 south and pursue much of that skill. What you are left with four years later is a special team, one that is 33-21 and a No. 1 seed in its conference tournament and bound for an NCAA regional.

One whose ace pitcher (junior Erick Fedde) was lost for the season this month to Tommy John elbow surgery but who recently told his coach he wants to dress for the conference tournament and will pinch run if needed.

“Here you have a kid who is a projected top-10 draft pick who has a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, still willing to do anything he can to help us win,” Chambers said. “I’ve never seen anything like this team and the camaraderie it has. In my 26 years of coaching, nothing. All that matters to each of them is the team.”

Fedde, by the way, attended Las Vegas High.

Just another local kid who bought in and was rewarded with a championship.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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