Despite losing a quartet of key contributors from the first UNLV baseball team to advance to an NCAA Regional tournament since 2005, Rebels coach Tim Chambers has higher hopes for this season’s squad.
“In my heart, I think we’re deeper and I feel we’re going to be better than we were last year,” he said. “Last year, we didn’t have the depth we have now. I really didn’t know that our freshmen class was going to be like it is now. It’s a really good class.”
Chambers has been especially impressed with three incoming shortstops: Payton Squire (Glendale, Ariz.), Austin Anderson (Littleton, Colo.) and Nicholas Rodriguez (San Fernando, Calif.)
Based on their performance thus far this fall, Chambers said he plans to start Rodriguez at shortstop and Squire at third base, with Anderson seeing action at short, second and third.
“That’s why we have depth,” he said. “All three have got the chance to be great, but so far Nick has outshined everybody. In my eyes, he’s like Derek Jeter.
“He’s 6-(foot)-1, very composed and quiet and just goes about his business. He’s got a plus arm. We’ve had a couple plays where we were saying, ‘Eat it,’ and he’s on his feet throwing to first.”
Chambers, the fifth-year coach who in June agreed to a new five-year contract, also likes what he’s seen from freshman left-handed pitcher Jack Freedman (Los Angeles) and redshirt freshman lefty Zach Cordova (Chandler, Ariz.) — nephew of Las Vegas native Marty Cordova, the 1995 American League Rookie of the Year.
In addition, UNLV has added freshman right-hander Christian Myers (Highlands Ranch, Colo.), son of former big league pitcher Mike Myers.
The Rebels, who went 36-25 last season and earned a share of the Mountain West regular-season title, will scrimmage Wednesday and Thursday before hosting Utah at noon Saturday in an exhibition game that’s free and open to the public.
UNLV will conclude its fall practices with a seven-game intrasquad World Series from Oct. 24 to Nov. 7. That series also is open to the public.
The Rebels, who advanced to regionals last season despite a late rash of injuries, lost their top two pitchers in Erick Fedde and John Richy and two of their three leading hitters in Pat Armstrong and T.J. White. All four were drafted. Despite having Tommy John surgery, Fedde was taken in the first round (18th overall) by the Washington Nationals; Richy went in the third round (98th overall) to the Los Angeles Dodgers; White in the 18th round to the Minnesota Twins; and Armstrong in the 39th round to the Los Angeles Angels.
UNLV returns 27 players, including Erik Van Meetren, a 6-foot-4-inch senior catcher from Bishop Gorman who hit .291 last season, and senior Morgan Stotts, a College of Southern Nevada and Silverado product who led the Rebels in hitting last season (.337).
UNLV also returns senior outfielders Edgar Montes (.296, eight assists) and Joey Swanner (.292) and Justin Jones, a junior from Bishop Gorman.
“Those guys will take the heat off the young players,” Chambers, 49, said. “They’re all polished players. They have a mission in their head.”
Several local products are expected to contribute on the mound. Bryan Bonnell, a 6-5 junior from Centennial who went 7-5 with a 2.90 ERA last season, returns to the rotation, along with Kenny Oakley (4-8, 3.06), a junior from Coronado. Closer Zack Hartman, a junior from Arbor View who was a freshman All-American for the the Rebels, returns to the team after sitting out most of last season as a medical redshirt. Zak Qualls, a junior left-hander from Rancho, returns to the team as well after last pitching for UNLV as a freshman.
After taking on the likes of Tennessee, Arkansas, Arizona State and Cal State Fullerton last season, the Rebels face another challenging schedule this season, when they open at home against Nebraska (Feb. 13 to 15) and travel to Ohio State.
“We want to play the best teams,” said Chambers, who is 132-101 in four years at UNLV. “We won 37 games two years ago and didn’t get in (to the NCAA Tournament). We won 35 this year and got in because of who we played.”
Without Fedde, the resilient Rebels went 1-2 at the Corvallis (Ore.) Regional before getting eliminated by host and top national seed Oregon State. Chambers hopes the Rebels will make trips to regionals an annual tradition.
“We want to be in the top 25 every year,” he said. “I’m not a big fan of once in a while.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.