COLLEGE BASEBALL: UTPB hits reset button, prepares for Lone Star Conference schedule

With a majority of its nonconference games in the books, the UTPB baseball team has an opportunity to hit the reset button.

That’s a chance the Falcons aren’t taking lightly.

Chris Ortega punctuated the restart after he hit the game-winning grand slam in extra innings against Colorado School of Mines on Sunday.

The Falcons split Sunday’s series as they prepare for their Lone Star Conference opener with one of the top teams in the country — No. 3 West Texas A&M — at 6:30 p.m. Friday in Canyon.

UTPB opened the season with a 6-1 record, but that start was quickly extinguished with a 15-game losing streak.

“It’s been a struggle. I can’t sugarcoat it,” UTPB head coach Brian Reinke said. “A combination of injuries and not playing well, have lead in what was supposed to be a good run up for nonconference for us, has lead at times to disastrous results.

“You can’t sugarcoat losing 15 in a row. That’s not possible. It doesn’t matter if you are losing 3-2 every game. At some point, it’s wrong. We have a chance to start over and that’s we are doing.

“These guys put so much pressure on themselves that they are paralyzing themselves. If one guy doesn’t perform, then the next guy feels the pressure and tries to do too much and it’s contagious. It becomes a snowball effect and before you know it everybody’s got the disease and they aren’t able to perform.”

During their 15-game losing streak, the Falcons (7-17) dropped five one-run contests.

Tyler Houlihan, who leads the Falcons with a .408 batting average, said the team pressed during crunch time. As a team, UTPB holds a .273 average with 62 extra base hits, 115 RBIs and 125 runs scored.

Jackson Pritchard leads the team with 13 extra bases and 17 RBIs, while Doug Clapperton and Jordan Zazulak have combined for seven doubles, four home runs, three triples, 29 RBIs and 25 runs scored.

“When things start to go wrong, you try harder and harder,” Houlihan said. “That’s always the first option. You think you have to try more. That’s definitely not the case. Baseball isn’t a game where you can over try and succeed. The game has to come to you. We’ve all been pressing at different times in different situations. We just have to learn how to have fun and play the game.”

Pritchard, the senior starting catcher, said it was disappointing the team was close in multiple games, but it couldn’t finish with a win.

“It was very frustrating,” Pritchard said. “We are out here working hard and everyone is trying to do everything right. It just wasn’t paying off in the end. When you start losing, everyone starts magnifying everything. One little thing turns into a big thing. We just need to keep pushing through it and on Sunday something finally clicked when (Ortega) hit that walk-off to set the season straight going into conference.”

Throughout its nonconference schedule, the Falcons faced three Lone Star opponents, but that preview didn’t include West Texas A&M.

The Buffaloes have the pitching, hitting and fielding to back up their top 10 rank. West Texas A&M holds the 17th-best batting average (.336) in NCAA Division II, while its one-two punch of Joshua Payne and Marshall Kasowski have combined for a 10-3 record with 76.1 innings and 132 strikeouts.

Kasowski leads the nation in strikeouts at 84, while Payne ranks 23rd with a 1.32 ERA in six starts. West Texas A&M is ranked 29th in fielding percentage (.969) with 26 errors in 26 games.

“We are facing one of the best pitchers in the league, so I’m excited to see how we handle that,” Houlihan said. “I’m excited personally to face that.”

UTPB also used its nonconference schedule to provide an opportunity for the young pitching staff to learn the ropes of NCAA Division II baseball.

The Falcons opened the season with one senior pitcher, Chris Cano, but he has been sidelined since March 11 with an injury. Reinke believes Cano can return for next week’s conference series against Cameron. Cano is the only pitcher on the Falcons’ staff that hasn’t suffered a loss as the senior right-hander is 2-0 in four starts with a 2.14 ERA.

Without the numbers from Cano, Matt Szymczak and Jake Albert have started 12 of the other 20 contests. Szymczak holds a 2-2 record, while Albert is 0-3. The rest of the starters for the Falcons include three junior transfers, one sophomore and one freshman.

“The young guys have never been a part of something like this,” Pritchard said. “During the preseason, the catchers are calling our own games back there, so we get to see what they like to throw in certain counts and what they don’t like to throw. If a guy leaves a slider up late in the game, the next time he pitches he won’t leave the slider up because he learned from his mistake earlier in the year.”

Reinke said one of the biggest hurdles the team must clear with the season resetting is the confidence to be one of the top teams in the conference.

The Falcons are the only program that hasn’t played Lone Star series. They are also the only team that hasn’t achieved double-digit victories. The next fewest wins is a tie between Texas A&M-Kingsville and Tarleton State at 16.

“To see them have some success is great, we just need to make sure they aren’t getting too down on themselves,” Reinke said.

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