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Pencil me in, coach Programs aim to build the perfect slate of games

BY Nathaniel Mata | SPORTS EDITOR

There’s no place like home. It doesn’t take ruby slippers, a wicked twister or a furry terrier to know that.

In pro sports, teams grind the entire regular season in hopes of hosting a playoff game or series.

The benefits of playing at home stretch beyond the ability to play in the same place you practice. Playing at home also means sleeping in the same bed, no worries about traveling and no unusual meal times.

So the struggle then becomes how many home games a head coach can get his or her team to play. Coaches in college make their own schedules, spending time calling coaches from other schools to agree upon open dates and the home team.

In every sport at UTRGV that experience is different. The factors of attracting strong opponents to play in Edinburg also vary.

Paul Leese, head coach of men’s soccer, says that being a new program creates reluctance for teams to play his second-year team. He said teams put a premium on creating tough schedules to raise their Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).

“Whenever you have a brand-new program, obviously, people don’t know what to expect. They’ll shy away at first because they want to see what they’re getting into,” Leese said. “You also have to face the other teams looking at high-ranking opponents. If you don’t win your conference championship you need to get an at-large bid [to the NCAA tournament]. So, a lot of teams focus on ‘my RPI has to be high to try to get an at-large bid.’”

A reason RPI makes such a difference in soccer compared to basketball is the size of the NCAA tournament. The tournament to determine a national champion in basketball is 64 teams, but soccer only has 48 participants. The fact that three of four division 1 men’s soccer programs are already in the Western Athletic Conference makes it difficult to find favorable home or even road opponents without traveling far.

For now, as the team competes through its infancy, Leese and his staff have taken full advantage of their experiences as head coaches and the relationships created along the way.

“Then it comes down to ‘what is our network with college teams?’” he said. “Teams that I know well, teams that Donovan [Dowling], Lee [Williams] know. That’s the good thing about all three of us having been head coaches before; we have very good existing relationships.”

The experience is challenging for unique reasons for women’s basketball Head Coach Larry Tidwell. Not all of those reasons are bad.

“As our program continues to get better, we’re always going to have trouble scheduling home games,” Tidwell said. “People don’t want to come down here. We’re 29-9 at home [over the last three years]. My first year, I had people ringing me off the ball, wanting to play.”

Tidwell’s schedules have testtested his team the last few seasons and that can be attributed as a big reason the team broke records for wins in 2014-15 and matched that last season. Two years ago, they faced Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Baylor and the University of Texas on the road. All these games ended up being losses but a few close calls may have helped spark their 9-5 conference record.

This year, they will be on the road again at Nebraska to open the season as well as at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and UT during non-conference.

“We’ve got another tough schedule, but it gets us prepared for conference,” said Tidwell, head coach since 2013. “One thing, too, is we play Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, I’m an expensive date. I get $25,000 or more every time we go play off campus to play a Big 12 or BCS [Bowl ChampionshipSeries] school. That’s what we put back into our program. Our administration uses that to pay for our summer school, cost of attendance and now our administration, [Athletics Director] Chris King, is putting that money back into scheduling so we can schedule more home games.”

This year is already an example of women’s basketball having considerably more home games than a season ago. Last year, Tidwell’s team had a mere 11 home games; this year, they play 15 times at the UTRGV Fieldhouse.

Also starting to enjoy more games at home is baseball Head Coach Manny Mantrana. While his team’s schedule hasn’t been released yet, it looks to add even more games in Edinburg.

“In the past, it was difficult to get teams to come down because of the location and the cost that they incur to come here,” Mantrana said. “The difference moving forward, beginning this year, is that now we’re allowed to give the teams a [monetary] guarantee. Moving forward we will be getting a lot home games because the athletic department has given us permission to offer a guarantee.”

Since joining the program in 2009, Mantrana’s win percentage on the road is .283 compared to .587 at UTRGV Baseball Stadium. Needless to say, getting more home games would help the program.

“Playing at home really in any sport, it’s huge for the simple fact that they practice here every day, so they’re used to the little nuances of the field,” Mantrana said. “They’re in the same routine, they get to sleep in their beds, eat what they usually eat and then, obviously, playing in front of your fans. That 10th man is always beneficial. In every aspect, playing at home is a huge factor.”

Vaquero coaches in every program vie to make the most fruitful schedule to ensure a strong non conference lineup, as well as prepare for WAC play. A successful road team is important but the ability to bring opposition to Edinburg will always remain paramount.

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