Thursday, May 18, 2017

May '17 Quick Hits

First, congratulations to the UT Arlington Men's track and field team, which claimed its 11th outdoor conference championship this past weekend. In doing so, they also claimed a triple crown by winning the cross country, indoor and outdoor conference championships in the same year. This is the second time the program has accomplished the feat, doing it last in 2013-14. The Mavericks also hosted the conference meet, their first instance of doing so as a member of the Sun Belt Conference.

UTA claimed 151 points in the three-day meet, besting second place Texas State by 35 points. They did it the way they have done recently, by dominating the track performance, and getting supporting roles in other events, like Christian Schiemann winning the decathlon. One of the great highlights was the Mavericks placing 1-2-3 in the 5,000 meter run as Michael Guerrero, Craig Lautenslager and Justin Domangue were the top three in the Sun Belt. That garnered UTA 24 points alone. Guerrero was also a multi-event winner.

In the video posted on UTAmavs.com, Coach John Sauerhage said something that really stuck out to me. As I was keeping updated on the meet (I had surgery the previous Friday and couldn't go), I was mildly put out at the number of sixth, seventh and eighth placings I was seeing. Yet, he was saying how much that meant to him and the team. I'll paraphrase, but not everyone can win or even medal. So the fifth-year player who finishes in the top eight and gets points for the team as a whole is very rewarding for the participant, and it helps the team out. Very well put by a very classy coach.

On the women's side, they finished third, scoring 103 points Texas State won the whole thing with 154.5 points, followed by Arkansas State with 118. UTA was as far down as fifth place late. Then the 4x400 meter relay won, jumping Appalachian State and South Alabama.

It was the best placing for the Mavericks since the WAC meet, when they finished second, also to Texas State. It is hard to be upset by a top three finish in any sport, but there is a pattern I'm not happy with, and that's losing to the Bobcats. UTA hasn't finished ahead of the in-state rival since 2010 when UTA placed second at the Southland Conference meet, one spot ahead of the 'cats.

I'll get more into the Bubas Cup at the end, but it was nice to see a spring sport contribute greatly to all-sports trophy. The NCAA will announce the individuals that qualify for the regional meets, which begin May 25th.

-SOFTBALL

For the first time since 2003, UTA softball was selected to play in a postseason tournament. For a long time, the NCAA Tournament was the only avenue to postseason play. This year, the National Invitational Softball Championships made a rebirth after a two-year run in the early 1990's.

The Mavericks made one of their better runs in a conference tournament in quite a while as they were one of only three teams left playing. They ran into the...Texas State Bobcats (sigh)... and Randi Rupp, one of the better softball pitchers in the nation to end their run. However, they were a borderline team to get in the NISC based on RPI, but the deep run helped solidify that.

The team ran into troubles, giving up a tying home run with one out to go against Abilene Christian before losing in extra innings. Then against Louisiana-Monroe, the hitting was non-existent in a 5-0 loss. Don't know why, but UTA's best pitcher, Sam Clakley, pitched only the first two innings against ACU and did not appear again.

The Mavericks had their best season under the Kristie Fox era, and overall since 2011. They garnered 30+ wins, had a plus .500 record overall and in conference and a return to postseason action. In all, I said in the previous entry that all we want as fans is to see progress. This year was definitely a step in the right direction.

-BASEBALL

What a disaster last week was. UTA came into the weekend conference series against Coastal Carolina, at home mind you, with a 19-5 conference record and a two-game lead on second place South Alabama. Today, they sit a game back of USA and a half game back of Coastal Carolina, thanks to an anemic offensive attack and pitching that couldn't do just enough to keep the Mavericks in it.

I was a bit uneasy sitting in first, wondering how a team that is now 11-15 at home (holy geez!) managed to breeze through the Sun Belt Conference, one of the better DI conferences. In essence, they beat who they were supposed to beat and got a couple of upsets along the way.

During their win streak, there was timely hitting to go with quality defense and pitching. No the offense is struggling, scoring six runs in four games. The pitching is looking suspect. Kadon Simmons is looking less and less like a Friday night starter, as he hasn't pitched a game like you'd expect a staff ace to do in his last four starts. Jakob Hernandez and Trae Patterson are the only ones that seem to be consistent.

It is a terrible time to slump for the baseball team. They need Troy to win at least two from South Alabama and have to sweep Texas State. That second one is no easy task, as the Bobcats have clearly been the better team the last decade and a half. Since the turn of the century, UTA has won only five of the 21 three-game regular-season series' played between the teams. And they are in San Marcos.

The Coastal Carolina series sweep was so disastrous, the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns have the opportunity to pass the Mavs. They play ULM, the last place team in conference, so it is very likely. At this time last week, they were in first by two games. Now, it is a very real possibility that UTA could be a fifth seed. Just incredible.

-BUBAS CUP

In another frustration that I've been wanting to point out, but doesn't really merit its own full post, UTA has been competitive for the Bubas Cup in almost every year in the SBC. They finished just a couple of points out a few years ago and there's a very real chance that could happen again this year.

First, let me say that it is really tough for UTA to compete, given they offer just 14 sports out of a possible 18 in the Sun Belt. Most teams competing have at least 16 and South Alabama has 17. Broken down by points earned per sport and UTA is clearly in the lead. After a wonderful winter performance, in which the men's basketball team earned 12 points, the women put up 11 and the indoor track teams put up 9 and 11 respectively, UTA was actually in the lead, despite having three of the four sports they don't offer already recorded points. I actually thought UTA could win it this year.

Then the women's golf points came and UTA couldn't put up any and Texas State took the lead. I thought with our normally strong contingent of men's golf and both gender tennis, one would do well enough to catapult UTA back on top.

Well that didn't happen. The men's team was the victim of the only upset in either tennis tournament and the women were not seeded high enough. The men, the defending conference champions, earned four of a possible eight points while the women gathered six of a possible eleven.

Then the golf team showed up, finishing the worst they have in a conference tournament since 1992 when they finished 11th out of 12 teams. My gosh was I disappointed. Not only was there no separation that I was hoping to happen, UTA actually trailed by much more than I thought possible. 

Thankfully the track teams took care of business and softball performed well considering where they have been, though the series loss to an App State team that could not beat a single other SBC team cost 'em points. Now the Athletic Department is dependent on baseball to do something that appears unlikely. It looks like once again, UTA will be on the cusp but come up short. I'd say maybe they'd have a chance with women's golf starting play next year, but with the men's team trending down the last two years, maybe not. A middle of the pack finish would help, but it would have helped for the men's team to do as such and they are a start-up.

Either way, it looks like close but no cigar will be the case again this year, in a way that is normally not expected.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Softballs Ends the Season, Eyes the Conference Tournament

Another team that was neglected during the last few months hiatus was the 2017 UT Arlington softball team. While it wasn't a banner year like what men's basketball experienced, or what the baseball team is currently doing, it was an improvement over last year. And right now, considering both where the UTA program is coming from and how nationally competitive the Sun Belt Conference is, I want to see improvement and I was not disappointed this year.


While they didn't start the year like they did last year, 19-0, they did actually field an team that was vying for top seeding in the SBC. This year, with a 14-13 record and a fifth place finish in the ten team SBC, the Mavericks had their best conference record since 2011. It was also the first time the team was in the top half of the standings since 2011. Should the Mavs win their first game in the conference tournament, they would hit the 30-win mark, which will also be a first since 2011.


And that's what I mean about improvements. In 2012, UTA was tied for tenth in the 11 team Southland Conference (a tie for last). In 2013, the team tied for sixth in the eight team Western Athletic Conference. In the first year in the SBC, the team was last of eight. In 2015, the team was a game below .500 overall, but still was seventh out of nine conference teams.


Then last year, the team showed a marked improvement in the overall record, the first winning season since 2011 at 29-20. But considering that 19-0 start, the team faltered in conference, 8-16 overall to again finish in seventh place out of nine teams.


So this year, UTA had both a winning record in and out of conference, one of the higher rated conferences in Division I. They won a game in every conference series, save for Louisiana, which has absolutely owned the Sun Belt for decades. UTA won five out of the nine conference series they played in, with each series playing three games.


The biggest disappointment was a road series against Appalachian State. The Mountaineers won two conference games all year, and both occurred April 29 as the Mavs were swept in the doubleheader. That would actually hurt the Mavs in the seeding, but I'll get to that in a minute.


The other major blemish on the year was a 3-2 loss at home to North Texas. I look to beat the Eagles every year in every sport, and am disappointed when the Dentonites win at anything.


But overall, the team did well in close games. That North Texas loss was one of four losses in one-run games, compared to nine wins. In games that went into extra innings, UTA sported a fair 4-2 record. The team is salty and never gives up. Never was that more apparent than in the season finale against Texas State.


The Bobcats and likely SBC-Pitcher-of-the-Year Randi Rupp were up in the final game of the series, 3-0 in the bottom of the seventh. Both teams had picked up a win in the prior two games with the series on the line. The Mavs manage to get several hits in the home half of the seventh, some not even leaving the infield, to tie the game. The winning run scored in the tenth inning on a close slide at home plate, giving UTA their first series win against Texas State since...2011. Very exciting way to end the regular season and prepare for the conference tournament.


The only real season record that didn't favor UTA were games that ended early due to run-rule. The Mavericks played in 11 games that finished prior to seven innings due to a lopsided score. They only won three of them, and none after March 5th. It would appear that UTA plays well in close games, but loses focus when the opponents score a few runs early or in bunches.


Within the SBC, UTA's fifth-place was a game-back of South Alabama. Remember that DH loss to App? UTA won the season series against the Jaguars. Had UTA won one of those two games to a previously winless squad, they would have been tied USA and secured the fourth seed. That would have been big due to how the conference tournament format is done.


The top eight team in the conference standings make the tournament. The last half of those teams play a single elimination game. In the Mavs case, they will play the eight-seed as the fifth seed. Every team will play their ace in an effort to win the game and advance, rather than end their season. The winner then plays the third and fourth seed on the same day. That means the better seeded team will have a staff ace waiting for the lower seeded teams second-pitcher.


For UTA, that is big. Sam Clakley, the ace of the staff, pitched the first and third game of every conference series. Her record against Sun Belt opponents was 11-7. Factoring out her 1-4 start to the conference slate, she was a stellar 10-3 to end the season. Sam Montes and Mariah Denson were next two that pitched and there was no consistency in their performance, unless you say they were consistently up and down. Montes was 1-3 in Sun Belt play. Denson was 2-2. In games Montes started, the team was 4-4, meaning she received a no decision in half the games she pitched. The team was 0-2 in Denson starts.


I'm confident the Mavs can compete against anyone in the conference with Clakley on the mound. The Sophomore has matured tremendously as the season has progressed, especially the later phases of conference play. I think she has the real potential to leave her name in the UTA record book many times over.


But after her, my confidence level drops tremendously. Had UTA won one of those App games, they would be set up well for the first day. Yes, they are in Louisiana's side of the bracket, and as far as I'm concerned, it is their tournament to lose. But were the Mavericks the fourth seed, set up against the lower-seeded team's second pitcher, I'd feel much more comfortable. The winner of the fourth-seed versus winner of 5 vs. 8 ends the day and would face Louisiana with their ace the next day. The winner of that game is then done for the day and so on until the conference championship game.


UTA's opponent to open the 2017 SBC softball tournament is the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, with a 32-22 record on the year, but a 10-16 showing in the Sun Belt. UTA swept the Chants in the regular season, but the games were close, 4-3, 2-0 and 8-5. Allan Saxe Field was also the venue, while the tournament will be a neutral site in Troy, Alabama. The game is scheduled to start at 10 a.m.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Baseball on a Roll

For the first time since I started this blog back in 2013, the UT-Arlington baseball team has looked more consistent and is playing up to the potential the program has the ability to do.They are currently 26-18 and 16-5 in the Sun Belt Conference. That SBC record is good enough for first overall, beating South Alabama by a full game and first in the SBC West over Louisiana by 2.5 games (The Cajuns had an unstable tie with Coastal Carolina on a travel day).

There's a lot to go over, and had I not had the personal issues, I certainly would have broken these down into different posts. So if the flow here is a little disjointed, just bear with me.

In shades of 2014, UTA is doing quite well in the conference. They are currently first, whereas the team finished second out of ten that year. Like 2014, UTA has performed poorly in non-conference play, at least poorly enough to virtually destroy any chance for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. In chronological order, UTA has lost to the following teams outside of Sun Belt play, with the number in parenthesis being the team's RPI rank as of May 3:

Monday, May 1, 2017

Greatest Team Ever




Notice there is no question mark in the title. The 2016/17 UT Arlington men's basketball team was the most talented and accomplished in the history of the program. Yes, all UTA fans are sad that the team could not get into the NCAA tournament, but that by no means is the sole headline of the season.

There were several things that stick out about the year, not the least of which was the first time UTA won multiple games in the postseason, as well as won a game in the NIT. Not to take anything away from the CIT win last year, but the NIT is a more prestigious tournament, against supposedly-tougher competition. There’ll be more on that in a minute.

As a refresher, I consider the 1980/1981 team to have been the best at UTA. My list is subjective of course, as there is no way to actually quantify it, but I have received mild backlash on my pick. Many say the 2008 team that made the NCAA tournament should be included. I’ve also heard the 2004 and 2012 teams that won conference championships should be ahead.

But I don’t rank them higher for one simple reason, the level of competition. In the early 1980’s, the Southland Conference was one of the premier “mid-major” (I hate that term, since it is all Division I), as the league boasted sweet sixteen runs and nationally competitive teams. For UTA to finish second, tied with Louisiana Tech and a game behind Lamar, was a greater accomplishment than beating the teams UTA did in a watered-down Southland in the 2000’s. On top of it, that team received an at-large invitation to the NIT. While we could debate the merits of UTA receiving an NCAA tournament at-large invitation, no UTA team has received an at-large to either tournament except in 1981.

This year’s team added some solid credentials that no team at UTA can lay claim to, cementing the 2016/17 team as the best Rebel/Maverick squad. They beat the number 12 team in the country with a convincing 65-51 win over Saint Mary’s on December 8. Beating a ranked team was a first. They won a regular season title in the Sun Belt Conference for the first time in four tries. The Sun Belt now is closer to that the SLC was in the early ‘80’s than what the SLC had turned into. They sported an undefeated record at home during the regular season, a first at UTA. The regular season attendance was second highest in UTA history, and didn’t have the benefit of a marquee team like North Texas or a power-5 conference school. Then there’s also the matter of 27 wins, three wins better than any previous team had earned.

And as mentioned, they won their first NIT game, en route to another. They also hosted an NIT game, and showed that UTA fans can turn out for big games at College Park Center. Against Akron, a season high 5,390 showed up as UTA won. That followed with a second-highest on-campus attendance ever of 6,336 against Cal State-Bakersfield, the first loss at College Park Center all year. You can’t convince me that had Jalen Jones not been injured, that the Mavericks wouldn’t have advanced to New York City.

The first inkling of disappointment came in the conference tournament. Jones had inured his hand in the opening game and his absence was notable. Many times this year when UTA looked flat, Jones was able to provide the spark needed to fuel a run. But Texas State, for the second time in three years, ended UTA’s run in the SBC tournament.

By the way, I want no one to claim again that there isn’t a real rivalry between the Mavs and ‘cats. Games that mean something build a rivalry and last year, UTA ended their season. The geographical closeness and the fact that each team is the other’s longest, continuous conference opponent only furthers that rivalry.

Despite the exit from the SBC tourney, UTA was guaranteed a spot in the NIT by virtue of its regular season title. UTA was seeded sixth, (really…?) and had to travel on the road to face the BYU Cougars.

It is hard to tell when a school like UTA plays a "name" team like BYU just what opponent the “smaller” school will get. A P5 conference team that plays in the NIT has had a disappointing year, as they aren't in the top 6-10 schools in their conference that made the NCAA Tournament. While BYU is not a P5 school, they have a name, following and expectations that put them near the same category. UTA dominated almost from the start and put the thing on cruise control. In all the Maverick games I have watched in almost two decades, it was single-handed the most dominating game ever. I say that because they never looked threatened, it was against a good 20+ win team and it was in the postseason.

The NIT was full of upsets (I don’t believe they were upsets, but just a general trend of overrating the P5 schools with a higher seed), and one of those upsets allowed UTA to host the Akron Zips, a seventh seeded team that beat the Houston Cougars in Houston.

The game was a similar storyline that I saw against BYU as the Zips never really challenged UTA. That win set-up a similar scenario where the eighth-seeded Bakersfield team came to Arlington.
Even in a loss to Bakersfield loss, there were positive signs, particularly in the second half. After a close start to the game, Bakersfield took the lead and never looked back, building as much as a 20-point lead early in the second, but then UTA began chipping away, but never seemed in control. Erick Neal made two quick three-point shots to bring UTA within two points with just under half a minute remaining in the game, but that would be as close as the Mavs got.

It was a bummer of a way to finish the year, but the foundation is set for 2017/18. There are some seniors that will need to be replaced, and there are question marks on who can man the interior with Jorge Bilbao now a UTA alum. But Kevin Hervey said after the game that he will be back for his senior season. Combined with the prowess of point guard Neal, UTA has a solid foundation to build on.

I also believe that the loss to Bakersfield will build fuel to the fire for UTA’s drive into next season. If Mav fan dreams come true, this team’s reign as the greatest ever will be short-lived.