The Nevada Wolf Pack baseball team is having a lot of fun this season.
“It all starts with coach Johnson,” infielder Bryce Greager said Saturday afternoon after his dramatic ninth-inning walk-off home run beat the Fresno State Bulldogs, 9-8, at Peccole Park. “Everyone feeds off of him.”
It hasn’t taken Jay Johnson long to change the culture and perception surrounding Wolf Pack baseball, a program that has been stuck on a treadmill the last 15 or so years, working hard but not really getting anywhere.
This program now, it appears, is about to get somewhere special very soon.
“We are just trying to focus in on what is ahead of us that day,” Johnson said. “I know you don’t want to hear me say that sort of thing. But it’s true. It’s why this team has been successful so far. We don’t look past what is immediately ahead of us. Our players have done a good job of staying in the moment.”
Yes, it’s just a bunch of clichés. When you win, those clichés sound like words from Plato and Aristotle. When you lose, well, you sound like a used car salesman. But it’s all just coach speak. It’s simply the way young coaches, who have grown up watching ESPN 24 hours a day, learn how to talk to the media and to athletic directors when applying for jobs.
Johnson, though, sounds like Aristotle these days.
“We just want to always stay humble,” said outfielder Brad Gerig, who drilled a two-run homer to tie Fresno in the ninth inning on Saturday, setting up Greager’s walk-off blast.
There is an air of optimism around Peccole Park these days not felt since the NCAA regional days in the late 1990s. The Wolf Pack bounces around Peccole Park like a bunch of Little Leaguers who just put on their first baseball uniform. They take team photos after each and every victory. So far there are 21 photos in the collection. And they don’t hang their heads or feel the sky is falling after every defeat. There are no stars. There are just teammates. There are no championships to be won at the end of the season. There’s just a game to be won that day.
“There are so many good foundation building blocks being created now,” the Pack’s Plato said.
Who knew they were building for this season?
Johnson took over a program that had been coached by one man (Gary Powers) for three decades. The expectations surrounding Johnson and the Pack for this season had sort of a wait-and-see feel to it. Powers’ last team, after all, lost 21 of its last 29 games and, well, the vast majority of Powers’ last team was going to be the nucleus for Johnson’s first team. Nobody was expecting a drastic transformation at Peccole Park.
The Wolf Pack lost six games in a row early in the season to fall to 2-6. They were just 6-9 in early March. They started just 3-6 in Mountain West play. They were just 13-14 overall on April 5. Johnson’s first Pack team had “rebuilding year” written all over it.
Well, who said you can’t rebuild and win at the same time? Johnson’s Pack is now tied with UNLV for second place in the Mountain West at 13-8 in league play. They have won seven of their last eight Mountain West games and 8-of-10 overall. First place in the Mountain West -- a goal that, we’re told by the coaches, university personnel and media, the men’s basketball team and football teams can’t achieve because of a lack of financial support from the community -- is a very real possibility for the program that everyone ignores every spring.
“I try not to get caught up in that,” said Johnson of the championship dreams. “All we are doing is staying in the moment.”
There could be some amazing moments in the next two months for Johnson’s Pack.
It must be noted that Johnson and the Pack are not doing this with mirrors and sleight of hand. It hasn’t all been one dramatic ninth inning miracle after another. These kids can play. Johnson and his assistants Dave Lawn (a former Powers assistant) and Mark Kertenian also have Powers’ never-ending work ethic and standards. And, to be sure, they didn’t exactly take over a sinking program lacking talent, work ethic and character.
Powers left Johnson some very valuable building blocks.
Austin Byler and Kewby Meyer are two of the best hitters in the Mountain West. Michael Fain is one of the best starting pitchers. Colby Blueberg and Adam Whitt give the Pack one of the top bullpens in the conference. Any coach would love to have talented left-handed starting pitchers Tyler Wells and Barry Timko. Powers also left Johnson a core group of grinders who do nothing but beat you, players like shortstop Kyle Hunt, third baseman Scott Kaplan and Gerig.
But Johnson and his staff are also taking Powers’ baton and running with it. Lawn, especially, has done a tremendous job nursing a thin pitching staff through an unforgiving season. And you can just see the weekly improvement in the Wolf Pack offense, a group that scored as many as five runs in a game just twice in their first 10 games.
Johnson, who just might be the best new coach brought into the Wolf Pack family since another Johnson named Trent in 1999, has taken the core group from last year and added to it. New players like freshmen pitcher/ utility player Trenton Brooks (a Powers recruit) and second baseman Justin Bridgman, as well as junior catcher Jordan Devencenzi and junior pitcher Jason Deitrich have been instrumental in turning the Pack into one of the best teams in the conference.
A trip to the program’s first regional since 2000 is not out of the question. It seems every team in the conference right now but the Wolf Pack and New Mexico is melting before our eyes. San Diego State looked lifeless at Peccole Park two weekends ago. Fresno State seemed afraid to win a game this past weekend. UNLV lost three games to lowly Air Force this weekend.
The Pack will likely have to win the Mountain West tournament in late May to get to the regionals. And winning a baseball tournament is one of the toughest things to do in college sports. To win a baseball postseason tournament, your entire roster comes into play. Players you are able to coddle and hide during the regular season -- like the 10th and 11th pitchers on your staff -- might turn out to be the difference between winning and losing a baseball tournament.
The Wolf Pack, after all, has never won a Division I conference or regional tournament in its history.
But this is a year of changing perceptions. And nothing would change the perception of Pack baseball more than a Mountain West tournament title next month.
“We knew after we swept San Diego State that we had something special going on here,” Greager said. “We’re very confident and we believe in each other and our coaches. But we’re not going to lose focus.”