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‘Prove them right’: UNLV baseball embraces high expectations

Junior left fielder Austin Kryszczuk spent the offseason waiting for this moment. For the past eight months, he and the rest of the UNLV baseball team have been forced to reckon with the way last season ended.

The Rebels had a successful campaign, storming to the Mountain West regular-season title for the first time since 2014, and they entered the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed.

Then, everything collapsed. UNLV was upset by Air Force, the eventual champion, 5-2, before falling against UNR 7-3, eliminating the Rebels from the Mountain West tournament.

Just like that, the most successful UNLV baseball season in almost a decade was done.

“It sucked,” Kryszczuk said. “We don’t want to feel that again.”

UNLV returns to the diamond for the first time since that disappointment at 6:05 p.m. Friday, when it welcomes the University of the Pacific to Earl E. Wilson Stadium for the start of a three-game series to open the 2023 season.

The Rebels are once again expected to be a contender for the conference title. Coach Stan Stolte’s squad was picked to finish first in the preseason poll by the Mountain West coaches for the first time in program history as UNLV tries to return to an NCAA regional after a nine-year absence.

“It’s nice,” said Stolte, who signed a four-year contract extension in September. “But as long as I’ve been here, the team that’s picked to win it has not ever won it. We’ve got to prove them right for a change.”

Stolte, entering his seventh season with the Rebels, said last year had an unfortunate ending to a fantastic season. UNLV ran into difficult pitching matchups in both games, and while Stolte said his team came ready to play, he admitted the Rebels were simply not the better team in both games, something Kryszczuk echoed.

“We just ran into two teams that were super hot at the time,” Kryszczuk said. “It’s baseball. It happens. Anybody who steps on the diamond can win that day. I think that’s the great thing about this game.”

Stolte returns a strong veteran core in the middle of his lineup. Kryszczuk, a junior from Centennial High School, is one of four returning players who hit over .300 in 2022, and his 12 home runs rank first among all returners. Kryszczuk, senior second baseman Edarian Williams from Rancho and junior center fielder Rylan Charles were all chosen as preseason All-Mountain West selections.

Kryszczuk and Stolte said the lineup is more athletic and versatile than last season’s. The Rebels are less reliant on timely home runs, and they will also be better defensively.

However, if 2022 taught Stolte and the Rebels anything, it’s that UNLV will only go as far as its pitching allows. Veteran starter Josh Ibarra, who led the Rebels’ starters in strikeouts and ERA, and reliable reliever Hayden Nierman are both gone, giving some of UNLV’s younger arms a chance to step up.

Left-handers Josh Sharman and Noah Mattera each made 11 starts in 2022, while right-hander Noah Beal also emerged as an option late in the season. Sharman, a junior from Desert Oasis, said the pitching staff has emphasized throwing strikes and trusting the defense.

Sharman said it would be a dream come true to help lead the Rebels back to an NCAA regional.

“This is the year,” he said. “We have the talent. We have the mindset, and we’re just ready to go at it this year.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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