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Rolling at right time Vaqueros set to begin WAC play

Jacob Huckabay stands in the batter’s box against Texas State University last Tuesday at the UTRGV Baseball Stadium. The Vaqueros won 4-3 in 10 innings. LESLEY ROBLES

The start of conference play has been delayed a week for two Western Athletic Conference baseball teams after last weekend’s series between UTRGV and the University of Northern Colorado Bears was canceled due to Winter Storm Selene and several inches of snow hitting Colorado.

The series will not be made up.

Now, the Vaqueros are set to begin the WAC baseball season using the momentum of six wins in the last eight games before facing the University of New Mexico Aggies to open up conference play. The team has stepped its game up a level offensively, defensively and on the mound right in time for the most crucial part of the year, conference season.

Conference play consists of 27 home and away games within the WAC against nine other teams. At stake is the WAC regular season crown, as well as seeding in the WAC tournament, which takes place at the conclusion of conference play.

Only six teams qualify for the WAC tournament, making every conference game critical. The winner of the tournament receives an automatic bid to the regionals of the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship tournament.

In what would have been the team’s final tuneup game before WAC play, UTRGV topped interstate foe, the Texas State Bobcats, 4-3 in an extra-inning thriller last Tuesday to bring its record to.500 (10-10). Now, the Vaqueros will begin their quest for conference supremacy in the first year as UTRGV.

Senior third baseman Scott Mercer spoke about the team’s recent success heading into the WAC season.

“We want to be playing good because this is the real season. It’s good to see our offense getting back into it with a lot of good games,” said Mercer, who hit a walk-off grounder that was misplayed versus Texas State. “It’s reassuring and gives us confidence going into conference play.”

Hoping to improve on last year’s 10th-place finish in the WAC as UT Pan American, Head Coach Manny Mantrana and the Vaqueros look to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the conference.

“I told them we’re going to divide the season into three stages. The first stage is over, prior to the WAC. Now, we’re heading into our second season, which are the next 27 WAC games,” Mantrana said. “Being able to win six out of eight, we’re starting to move the pieces around in a way where we’re able to compete and we’re able to win.”

Sophomore pitcher Justin Quinonez got his first start of the season against the Bobcats, allowing no runs in 6.1 innings against a 15-5 Texas State team that received votes in the most recent USA Today Coaches’ Poll.

“It’s always good going into WAC weekend with a win,” Quinonez said. “We’re getting hot at the right time, our offense is coming through and our pitching is coming through like we hoped.”

The Vaqueros’ success has caught the eye of the WAC, as sophomore pitcher Johnny Gonzalez was named WAC pitcher of the week March 21, rewarding his early season play. Gonzalez, the former reliever who is transitioning into a starting role this season, is 3-1 on the year and has a 1.20 ERA in his five starts, while striking out 27 hitters in 30 innings.

The Vaqueros look to carry the momentum they’ve created into WAC play as they host the University of New Mexico State Aggies for a three-game home series beginning at 7 p.m. Friday on Mystery Giveaway Night at the UTRGV Baseball Stadium.

UTRGV baseball will wrap up preWAC play when the team takes on the University of Incarnate Word Cardinals at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in San Antonio.

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