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Countdown to first pitch UTRGV baseball prepping for opener

Senior centerfielder Cole Loncar throws a ball during practice Feb. 1 at the Edinburg Baseball Stadium. Loncar was named to the preseason Madness All-Western Athletic Conference first team. LESLEY ROBLES/THE RIDER PHOTOS

 

The grass is freshly cut and if you listen close enough walking down Schunior Road you can hear the ping of aluminum
bats making contact with balls from the Edinburg Baseball Stadium.

As the calendar turns to February, the start of UTRGV baseball looms closer.

The team’s first action is a four-game set in West Texas to face Abilene Christian University beginning Feb. 19.

Coach Manny Mantrana is set to start his seventh season as bench boss of the baseball program. The roster is different, as it is every year, for the former minor league baseball player that is now a veteran of college coaching.

This year’s group of student-athletes consists of 16 returning players, 10 true freshmen and six transfers. One player that Mantrana hopes to count on in a big way is senior outfielder Cole Loncar.

Loncar, who joined last season as a transfer student, has already earned preseason first-team Madness All-
Western Athletic Conference accolades.

The recognition, given by College Sports Madness, highlights players to watch in conference around the country. In the 2015 season, Loncar hit for a .348 batting average, with 12 doubles, two triples and three home runs.

The senior from the state of Washington wants to just take the recognition in stride and continue to help the team.

“I don’t feel any extra pressure or anything like that, just wanna keep playing my game and helping my team,” said Loncar, the 6-foot, right-handed batter. “I try to just lead by example and do my best for the team. I just want to leave the legacy of ‘That guy came out every day and worked hard. He gave everything he had.’”

Coach Mantrana gave high praise to his centerfielder, who started all 52 games in the 2015 season.

“Cole exemplifies the kind of player that we would like in the program,” the head coach said. “Terrific player, great teammate and outstanding student, just last semester a 4.0. Offensively, I think we’re a little bit better than I thought we were [going to] be.”

He went on to list upperclassmen that he feels will be a big part of that offense. The hitters will try to raise the .267 batting average that the team hit last year, which scored 288 runs compared to 322 runs allowed.

On the flip side of that equation, pitching will need to do its part to make sure the Vaqueros score more runs than give up.

The average ERA (earned run average) of the three UTPA pitchers with at least 10 starts in 2015 was 4.85. The entire pitching staff’s average was 5.41, while those pitching against UTPA’s lineup had a 4.67 ERA.

Mantrana said the competition for starting pitcher positions are wide open leading up to their first games.

 

“In your mind, after the fall you start to place them in different roles,” the Miami, Fla., native said. “We have some guys that we know are going to be pretty good. What role they are going to play as practices go into the spring, we can get those cemented.”

He also said he would not be afraid to give a big spot, whether it be offensively or defensively, to one of the 10 freshmen new to the team and to college baseball.

“With us, if a freshman, we feel, is better than a sophomore, junior or senior, we’re gonna play that freshman,” Mantrana said.

An example of this mindset to play talented underclassmen is Robert Quinonez, a sophomore pitcher, who started 10 games as a freshman. The graduate from Calallen High School in Corpus Christi is one of those who is fighting to get important innings for this year’s team.

“A key is to keep working hard every day,” the 6-foot-3-inch business major said. “You got to accept the role you get either way, but one way you can get to that weekend [starter] spot is by going out every weekend when we have intersquad and throw strikes. It starts with your mental toughness; you can’t put your head down when things go wrong.”

Quinonez will hope to be one of those counted at the start of the season all the way into WAC season opening day. UTRGV will start its season Feb. 19 at Abilene Christian University. Its first action in front of the home crowd will be Feb. 25 against Pac-12 opponents Washington State University to kick off the Al Ogletree Classic.

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