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Monday, December 22, 2014

Baseball: MWC defender team to beat

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By Rachel Toraño-Mark / New Mexico Daily Lobo

UNM senior pitcher Josh Walker prepares to release a pitch against La Salle last year at Isotopes Park. The Lobos began the 2014 season at San Diego starting on Friday.

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@ThomasRomeroS

It is definitely a start of a new era in New Mexico baseball.

Gone are the likes of first baseman DJ Peterson, catcher Mitch Garver, outfielders Luke Campbell and Josh Melendez and starting pitcher Sam Wolff, all of whom signed with major league teams this past offseason.

This year’s team will feature many young fresh faces for the defending Mountain West champions. Freshmen infielders Andrew McWilliam, Andre Vigil and Jack Zoellner, catcher Lane Milligan and pitcher Carson Schneider are some of the newcomers for the Lobos.

Despite the youth movement, rival MW coaches pegged UNM as the team to beat this season along with San Diego State. Baseball America also picked the Lobos as the favorites in the MW.

“We got the youngest team in the league this year. I think it’s out of respect because of what we’ve done the past six years. We’ve either been a champion or runner-up every year for six years,” head coach Ray Birmingham said. “I think they respect the job that we do. We got the youngest team in the Mountain West this year and it’s going to be a hard one.”

The Lobos have 24 underclassman and just a couple of seniors with a lot of in-game experience: Preseason All-American Josh Walker, who went 11-1 last year with a 3.66 ERA, and outfielder Chase Harris, who scored 57 runs and had a .321 batting average.

UNM also had four players voted onto the Preseason All-Mountain West team: catcher Alex Real, shortstop Jared Holley, Harris and Walker.

Walker said the expectations are for the Lobos to once again take the conference crown. Last season, UNM went 25-5 in the MW which is the most wins any team has ever had in the MW.

“I like the poll. I think the poll is a good thing for the younger guys to give them some confidence, and gives them a reason to have faith in the coaching staff, our teammates and our players,” he said. “Overall, it’s a good thing that we’re there and I think we’ve earned it.”

The road to a second consecutive MW title will not be easy for the Lobos.

UNM opens the season up at University of San Diego this weekend. The Toreros reached the NCAA tournament last year with a 37-25 record and have won three out of the past four West Coast Conference tournament titles.

The Lobos stumbled out of the gate in 2013 with a 2-6 record before turning things around. UNM had just a 14-9 record on the road last season.

“I don’t know. That could be a possibility (starting out slow). As we always do, we don’t open up with any sissy schools,” Birmingham said. “We always open up with good teams. We always have a tough schedule and I think that makes us better at the end. We’ve got to move forward and see how we grow because we’re so young.”

UNM will stay on the road after the three-game series at San Diego and travel to Tempe, Ariz. to take on Arizona State on Tuesday.