The Nevada Wolf Pack baseball team can wipe away a dozen years of frustration in the Western Athletic Conference this weekend.
"We control our own destiny," Pack relief pitcher Matt Gardner said. "It's awesome."
The Wolf Pack needs to win just one of three games starting tonight in Honolulu against the Hawaii Rainbows to clinch a share of their first-ever WAC regular season championship. The Wolf Pack currently leads the WAC at 10-5 followed by Sacramento State (11-7), Hawaii and New Mexico State (both 8-7), Louisiana Tech and Fresno State (both 6-9) and San Jose State (5-10).
"We can still accomplish everything we set out to do at the beginning of the year," Gardner said. "We can win the WAC, win the tournament and go to a regional. There were some moments this year when we kind of asked ourselves, 'Are we ever going to get there?' But we battled through all that and here we are."
Two victories at Hawaii will give the Pack the WAC regular season title all by themselves (Sacramento State owns the tiebreaker against the Pack) and the No. 1 seed in next week's conference tournament (May 23-27) in Mesa, Ariz.
"Winning the championship will get us back to where we once were and where we always want to be," said Wolf Pack coach Gary Powers, who last coached a regular season conference champion in 2000 in the Big West Conference.
The Pack joined the WAC the following year and haven't won a league crown since. They did come close three times, losing all three times to Fresno State (two games back in 2007, three games back in 2008 and just 1.5 games out in 2010).
When asked if he ever thought it would take a dozen years to win a WAC title, Pack coach Gary Powers said, "Who knows? Baseball is a very cyclical sport. When we were real good in the 1990s, Fresno State couldn't play with us. But they've had a nice run lately. But we're still right there with them, competing for championships. When Rice was winning the league (in the early 200s), we were right there with them, too. We've been competitive for the most part but we just haven't won it."
Powers and the Wolf Pack (30-21), which will join the Mountain West Conference next year, are more than ready to leave the WAC this year with a title.
"Do you think the last 10 or 12 years have been satisfying to any of us? Of course not. We've had some nice moments and some good years but it hasn't been satisfying overall. But this sport is a grind. You have to stay with it and keep battling. And that's what we've done and that's why we are in the position we are in right now because we kept batting."
The Wolf Pack heads to Hawaii with a five-game winning streak. They have also won 10 of their last 13 games and 14 of their last 19. They have, however, lost two of three games in each of their last three road series at Seattle (May 5-7), Sacramento State (April 20-22) and New Mexico State (April 5-7) and have not won a series on the road since they won two of three at UNLV on March 2-4.
None of that matters, though, starting Thursday.
"We're clicking at the right time," said Gardner, who has set the Pack's single-season saves record this year at 12. "The thing that makes us a good team is the passion everyone on this team has for the game. It's unreal. We're all pulling for each other. And we're going to give our best effort everyday and leave everything we have out on the field. That's how we've won."
Winning at Hawaii, though, is never easy. The Rainbows are 24-11 at Les Murakami Stadium this year and are 13-5 against the Pack in Honolulu since 2004. The Pack, though, did sweep a three-game series in Hawaii in 2003 behind future major leaguers Brett Hayes and Kevin Kouzmanoff, starting pitchers Mateo Miramontes, Eddie Bonine and Justin Sherman and closer Zac Basch.
The Wolf Pack, though, might be catching Hawaii at the right time. The Rainbows were swept in a three-game series last weekend at Sacramento State and they will be without their No. 1 starter, Matt Sisto (8-3, 3.03 earned run average), who is nursing a groin injury.
Jarrett Arakawa, a 6-foot, 185-pound left-hander, is scheduled to start for Hawaii in Sisto's old role as the team's No.1 starter on Thursday. The Pack beat Arakawa last year at Peccole Park, 10-0. It was the only game of the four-game series the Pack won.
Bradey Shipley (8-3, 2.08) will be on the mound for the Pack against Arakawa on Thursday. The Pack's Tom Jameson (7-2, 2.13) will face Hawaii's Scott Squier (3-4, 3.39) on Friday. Jameson is 6-foot-7 and Squier is 6-6.
Neither team has named a starter for Saturday's series finale. A possible choice for the Wolf Pack is senior Troy Marks. Marks shut out Hawaii 10-0 in a seven-inning game last season at Peccole Park.
"We don't want to get ahead of ourselves," Powers said. "This next series is the most important one of the year because it is the next one. And our next game on Thursday is the most important game because it is the next one. That's how we've approached this entire season. We'll see what happens when we get to Saturday."
The Rainbows (28-22) are all about their pitching. Hawaii's earned run average (2.95) is the 19th best in the nation. They are 21-0 when holding their opponent to under three runs and just 7-22 when they allow three or more. They are also 22-0 when leading after eight innings as closer Brent Harrison has eight saves and a 1.17 ERA in 20 appearances.
"We still have a lot of work to do," Powers said.
The Pack certainly does not want to go into Saturday's game, with Shipley and Jameson already done for the series, needing a victory to earn a share of the league title. Three losses at Hawaii would drop the Pack down to third or fourth place. The goal for every team in the WAC this year is to finish either first or second to earn an all-important first-round bye in the WAC Tournament.
"That is huge," Powers said.
The Wolf Pack left for Hawaii on Wednesday and will not return to northern Nevada until the end of the WAC Tournament.
"We're confident," third baseman Garrett Yrigoyen said. "Everyone believes in each other. This is a great group of guys on this team. We don't want it to end anytime soon."