The New Mexico baseball team has had plenty of preseason accolades entering this year, but it's the postseason that the Lobos have their eyes on.
"It ain't what I'm aiming for; it's an indicator that we're getting closer," coach Ray Birmingham said. "I'm aiming to get to (the College World Series in) Omaha."
Ranked No. 21 by Baseball America, the Lobos return a lot of the talent that helped them go 37-24 overall and 18-6 in the Mountain West last season. Conference coaches and BA both predict UNM will take home the league title again this season.
"The preseason hype is good," said senior catcher Mitchell Garver. "It's definitely good for our repertoire. I feel like the preseason hype is something that puts a bigger target on your back than normal."
The Lobo lineup returns mostly intact, anchored by Garver (.377, 10 HR, 57 RBI) and junior third baseman D.J. Peterson (.419, 17 HR, 78 RBI), who was ranked by Baseball America as the No. 10 collegiate prospect for the Major League Baseball draft.
"I think the best quality of (our lineup) is experience," Peterson said. "We've got four guys have been two-plus (NCAA) regionals, maybe five or six guys that have been to two-plus regionals. That will come in handy when we get to a regional this year."
Also back in the field is senior shortstop Alex Allbritton (.251, HR, 31 RBI), an excellent defensive player. The only bad news is that Allbritton fractured his right index finger in a bunting drill Thursday. He is currently listed as day-to-day, but the hope is that he will be healthy enough to play in the season opener against Oklahoma State on Feb. 15 at 5 p.m. at Isotopes Park.
Sophomore Alex Real (.271, 3 HR, 29 RBI) is expected to step up at first base this year, though he can also back up Garver. Freshman Sam Haggerty is the favorite to play second base, replacing departed senior Kyle Stiner.
"We've got options in the infield," Birmingham said.
Sophomore Ryan Padilla (.353, 5 HR, 49 RBI) will shift from right to left field, while senior Josh Melendez (.347, 3 HR, 44 RBI, 23 stolen bases) returns in center field. Senior Luke Campbell, who sat out last year after fracturing his orbital bone during batting practice, will be back in right field. Junior Chase Harris, a transfer from the College of Southern Idaho, will also push for playing time.
"A bunch of them can hit," Birmingham said. "They can get better (defensively). They can play regular outfield but I'm talking outstanding outfield. We've got lots of options."
Junior John Pustay (.294, 3 HR, 20 RBI) is back after dislocating his knee last season. He will see time at designated hitter and first base after mainly playing in the outfield in the past. Senior catcher Erik Suarez, freshmen infielders Drew Bridges, Jared Holley and Jered Meek, and sophomore outfielder Tyler Kamtz give UNM a deep and versatile bench.