Pack baseball enters toughest stretch | NevadaAppeal.com

Pack baseball enters toughest stretch

Sports fodder for a Friday morning . . .

Nevada Wolf Pack fans should get down on both knees before they go to bed each night and thank the heavens that they didn't become a UNLV Rebels fan. Optimism has never been higher for the Wolf Pack's three most high profile sports. The baseball team is on a path toward its first NCAA Regional in 15 years, the men's basketball team is now led by a NBA coach and the football team is poised for a breakout season. UNLV? Well, the Rebels seem to be in a free fall. The football team went 2-11 last year and is now led by a high school coach. The men's basketball team underachieved again last year (8-10 in the Mountain West) and its best player Rashad Vaughn just declared for the NBA draft. The baseball team is 2-13 right now in league play. Enjoy, Pack fans. Enjoy.

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The Pack baseball team is headed into its toughest stretch of the season. The Wolf Pack is currently 26-7 overall and tied with San Diego State for first place in the Mountain West at 12-3. The Pack, though, has to play 15 of its next 20 games on the road. Those 15 road games will go a long way in determining whether or not the Pack sews up a regional spot before the Mountain West tournament next month at Peccole Park. The Pack will only have to go 8-7 in those 15 games and 6-2 in its final eight home games to reach 40 wins heading into the postseason tournament. That should be enough to get the Pack to a regional no matter what happens at the Mountain West tournament.

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Getting to a regional seems to be a done deal for the Pack baseball team. The biggest question right now is who will become the Mountain West Player of the Year? The Pack's Ryan Howell or Austin Byler? Howell, right now, might have a slight edge. He leads the conference in slugging (.754), home runs (10), RBI (46) and total bases (95) to go along with a .373 average. Byler, though, is right behind him. He leads the conference in on base percentage (.543), walks (37), hit by pitches (13), doubles (14) and runs scored (40). He is also second in slugging (.727) and homers (eight) and is hitting .343. They are the best one-two punch the Pack has had since Lyle Overbay and Joe Inglett in the late 1990s.

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This is clearly one of the Wolf Pack's deepest and best offensive teams in school history. The teams from 1994-2000 still rate a slight edge above. They were powerful and explosive from top to bottom with the likes of Overbay, Inglett, Don Price, Matt Ortiz, Justin Martin, Ryan Church and many others. But the offensive gap between those legendary teams and the 2015 Wolf Pack isn't as large as you might think. The 1990s were the days of supersonic bats. You could check your swing and hit the ball 400 feet. It's a bit different in college baseball these days. You actually have to make solid contact to drive the ball. And this Pack team is more than just Howell and Byler. It also has Cal Stevenson, Bryce Greager, Trenton Brooks, Kyle Hunt and Jordan Devencenzi. And, like the Pack teams in the 1990s, there is also a host of guys who can step up and beat you on any given day. Pack coach Jay Johnson, who helped tutor Chicago Cubs phenom Kris Bryant at San Diego, is truly one of the best offensive coaches in the nation.

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The Wolf Pack football team just might be headed into its easiest schedule since the Division I-AA days. Since the Pack does not have to play Boise State, Colorado State and Air Force, just one of their eight Mountain West foes this year (Utah State at 10-4) had a record of better than one game over .500. Six of the eight had losing records. The Pack also gets to play pushovers UC Davis (a 2-9 Big Sky team) and Buffalo (a 5-6 MAC team) in the non-conference schedule. Arizona (10-4 last year) is on the schedule but they are coming to Mackay Stadium and barely beat the Pack last year in Tucson and in a bowl game in Albuquerque three years ago. The Pack does have to go to Texas A&M but they are just another overrated SEC team. A 9-3 record, even if the Pack doesn't find a consistent quarterback, is entirely within reach.

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Wisconsin Badgers basketball coach Bo Ryan embarrassed himself after the loss to Duke in the title game. Ryan complained about the officiating in the game (it was bad for both teams) and made a point of saying that he doesn't rent players for one year like super powers Duke and Kentucky. That was not the time and place for such comments. Ryan should know better. Ryan's Badgers, despite the poor officiating and the fact that Duke was largely comprised of rent-a-players, was ahead by nine midway through the second half. Ryan was out-coached in the final 10 minutes and his players physically wore out. The post-game press conference should have been a time for Ryan to show some class.

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What, exactly, is UNLV's Rashad Vaughn thinking? He literally spent four months as a Rebel before his season ended on Feb. 10 with a knee injury. Nobody expects him to be drafted in the first round of the NBA draft. But he's going anyway. Vaughn, though, told the media how his UNLV experience changed his life and how his teammates are his brothers and his coaches are his family. "There's nothing like being a Runnin' Rebel," Vaughn said. Yeah, right. All that bonding took place in just four months? And, yet, he couldn't wait to leave his brothers and family and the environment that changed his life. Vaughn is yet another reason why it's good to be a Pack fan now and not a Rebel fan. Wolf Pack quard Deonte Burton could have jumped to the NBA after his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons and become, at best, a second-round pick. But he didn't. His family actually meant something to him.

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