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UNLV baseball faces frustrating climb back to NCAA tourney

Updated May 29, 2019 - 4:56 pm

The national landscape of college baseball has changed, and even tradition-rich programs outside power conferences are having difficulty competing at an elite level.

That doesn’t mean expectations have changed at UNLV.

Coach Stan Stolte is working to get the program back where it appeared headed five years ago, one that would compete for Mountain West championships and in NCAA regionals. It’s been a tortuous journey since earning a No. 2 seed in the Oregon State regional in 2014, but Stolte said the program is moving closer to realizing his vision.

UNLV went 29-29 this season, but made the Mountain West tournament championship game before losing 12-6 to No. 21 Fresno State. The Rebels went 35-24 a year ago, but this season played a tougher schedule and regularly started four or five freshmen.

The Rebels have not won the Mountain West tournament since 2005.

Stolte said the program was “still low on numbers in the upper classes and (we) want to fix this one time the right way” to put the Rebels on the path to sustained success.

Athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois, who as a member of the NCAA baseball committee helped select the 64-team playoff field Monday, said she will meet with Stolte soon to “discuss how we can continue growing our baseball program. We’ll look at what he needs and our team needs to be successful, and we’ll work hard to provide him those resources. We’re both looking forward to being in the national conversation in the future.”

UNLV needs to improve its pitching after allowing a 5.93 ERA this season; only New Mexico’s 6.44 was higher in the Mountain West. Difficulty getting outs was why the Rebels played .500 ball despite finishing second in the league with a .297 batting average.

“We have to get deeper on the pitching staff,” Stolte said. “The teams that get into the postseason, they can pitch. You can’t hit your way into that.”

UNLV is playing under increasingly adverse circumstances for conferences outside the Power Five. When the Rebels made the 2014 regional, they got in as an at-large team.

This season, the Mountain West, Big West Conference and West Coast Conference were one-bid leagues. Brigham Young won the Big West regular-season title, but failed to capture the tournament championship and was passed over by the selection committee. The Cougars went 36-17 and had an RPI ranking of No. 46.

Big West powers Cal State Fullerton (27-26) and Long Beach State (14-41) had unusually down seasons. Long Beach State fired coach Troy Buckley on April 11.

So UNLV is in a situation where it needs to win the Mountain West tournament title or stay home unless the Rebels can build a strong enough RPI for at-large consideration.

UNLV is addressing that challenge by scheduling home-and-home series that begin next season with Alabama, Creighton, Nebraska and UC Santa Barbara. All have RPIs that rank in the top 41.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Stolte said. “You’ve got to play them, but you’ve got to beat them, too. We feel if we keep building this, we want to play the best teams and earn our way in.

“We’re recruiting kids to play the best. We’re not recruiting just to be OK. We’re trying to win something.”

More Rebels: Follow at reviewjournal.com/Rebels and @RJ_Sports on Twitter.

Contact Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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