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New Mexico, UALR eye NCAA success despite records
Question of the Day
Scott Norwood fully grasped the significance when he saw the more than 100 messages on his phone.
The Arkansas-Little Rock baseball coach had just finished celebrating a stunning march through the Sun Belt Conference tournament when the text messages and calls started pouring in. Friends, fellow coaches and alumni all took the time to celebrate the Trojans’ first trip to the NCAA tournament.
Like Norwood, New Mexico baseball coach Ray Birmingham took a moment to celebrate the Lobos’ second straight bid to the NCAAs when they won the Mountain West Conference tournament. Birmingham’s celebration, however, was equaled by relief after a difficult season.
Both UALR (24-32) and New Mexico (20-39) open tournament play Friday, and they do so with the two worst records in the 64-team field. Despite their combined .383 winning percentage, the two schools hope to continue late-season surges.
“They didn’t get on that bus to come out here just because we made them come out here,” Norwood said. “They came out here expecting to win.”
The Trojans open against Oregon State at the Corvallis, Ore., regional on Friday. A week ago, an NCAA appearance was the last thing even Norwood could have predicted for a team that entered the Sun Belt tournament 12 games under .500.
Norwood, in his third year at UALR, led the Trojans to a 29-25 record last season _ a 13-win improvement over his first season in 2009.
The higher expectations, along with injuries, took their toll this season.
The Trojans dropped five games by one run and fell to 16-27 after a home loss to Oklahoma on May 4 capped a season-worst seven-game losing streak.
“Instead of us being the ones trying to give the punch, they were kind of giving it to us,” Norwood said. “It took us a while to learn how to handle that.”
The Trojans entered the Sun Belt tournament on a three-game losing streak after being swept at rival Arkansas State.
Their fortunes changed quickly at the tournament when they opened with a 4-2 win in 10 innings over top-seeded Troy. The belief built from there, with UALR finishing off the tournament with a 7-6 win over Florida International in the championship.
Up next is a trip out West for the Trojans, who didn’t mind the long haul when their name was called during the NCAA selection show.
“It kind of gives us a chance to just come out here, there’s really no pressure on us,” Norwood said. “It’s really just us, kind of an us-against-the-world mentality. We’ll have 50 fans here, max.”
Like UALR, New Mexico entered its conference tournament on a losing streak _ seven games _ before winning four straight to advance to the NCAA tournament.
Unlike the Trojans, making the NCAA field was familiar territory. The Lobos advanced last year, winning a game against Stanford, and have fashioned a 109-67 record in three seasons under Birmingham.
After the three-year run of success, Birmingham decided it was time for a change. He put together as difficult a schedule as possible, beginning with a season-opening game at Arizona State and including nonconference road series at Oklahoma State, Arizona and Oklahoma.
“We had gone to a regional last year for the first time in 50 years, and we had gone the hard way by getting an at-large bid,” Birmingham said. “I just thought we had established ourselves and it was about trying to establish an attitude by matching up with the best teams in the country. Our schedule was arguably the hardest in the country.”
In addition to the difficult schedule, New Mexico also lost 12 players during the season for one reason or another. Some suffered injuries, personal loss or just quit during the struggles.
When the Lobos open the Tempe, Ariz., regional against the same Arizona State team they faced to open the season, they’ll do so with 23 players.
Birmingham doesn’t expect to change his scheduling despite this season’s struggles. And he wouldn’t trade the 23 players who have made it through the long bus trips and tough games for anyone. He said they have the attitude he was looking to build, and one he hopes to carry over to Tempe.
“We’ve got nothing to lose,” Birmingham said.
By Michael Widlanski
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