Joe Santoro: With sweep, Pack baseball has momentum | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: With sweep, Pack baseball has momentum

Joe Santoro
The Nevada baseball team swept two games against Oregon State at the begining of the week.
UNR

Eric Musselman (remember him?) isn’t the only coach able to get the Nevada Wolf Pack some national attention. ESPN, CBS or Sports Illustrated haven’t called yet but coach T.J. Bruce’s Wolf Pack baseball team did something this week that not even Musselman’s men’s basketball teams the past four years ever accomplished. Bruce’s Pack beat the No. 2 ranked team in the nation. Twice. The Pack swept a two-game series over Oregon State, the defending College World Series champions, in walk-off style both times, winning 8-7 in 12 innings on Monday and 7-6 in 10 innings on Tuesday. This could be what Bruce’s Pack needs to propel itself into the program’s first NCAA regional since 2000.

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If Musselman’s basketball team taught us anything this year, it’s to never count your Wolf Pack championships until they’re hatched. But Bruce’s Pack, despite its ordinary 23-18 overall record and 10-11 record in the Mountain West, does have a legitimate chance at a regional berth. The reason for such optimism, in addition to the two wins over the Beavers, is because the Mountain West tournament is at the Pack’s Peccole Park in late May. Musselman’s Pack would have won the NCAA tournament this past season if all the games were played at Lawlor Events Center.

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Bruce’s Pack, by the way, still needs to qualify for the four-team Mountain West tournament. The Pack is currently tied for fourth with UNLV at 10-11, ahead of New Mexico (7-11) and Air Force (7-12) and behind Fresno State (11-6), San Diego State (10-7) and San Jose State (12-9). The Pack’s chances of finishing in the top four, though, are reasonably good. San Jose State is in a free fall, having lost seven games in a row. The Pack schedule the rest of the way (three games each against Air Force, San Jose State and Fresno State) is manageable while UNLV has to play three-game series against San Diego State, Fresno State and New Mexico.

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Bruce has done a solid job at Nevada since taking over the program at the start of the 2016 season. His overall record (108-102) isn’t anything to get excited about but his teams perform well in the games that matter, going 63-46 in Mountain West play. The Pack this year has taken a page out of the book of the program’s regional teams in 1994, 1997, 1999 and 2000 by hitting the ball out of the park. The Pack, led by Dillan Shrum (10 homers), Weston Hatton (8) and Joshua Zamora (8), has 41 homers already this year after hitting 46 all of last year and just 24 in 2016 and 30 in 2017.

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The Wolf Pack football team will stage its annual spring scrimmage game this Saturday (1 p.m.) at Mackay Stadium. Coach Jay Norvell’s Pack, if it can put together a reliable defense, should be able to at least duplicate last year’s eight-win season. But don’t be shocked or dismayed if the Pack starts out 0-2. The first two games are Purdue at home and Oregon on the road. It’s not Alabama and Clemson but those two games could be difficult tests for a Pack team breaking in a new quarterback and a defense that has to be rebuilt. The final 10 games are all winnable. A bowl berth is almost guaranteed.

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Of course, the won-loss record is just for the fans. The only numbers that really matter at Nevada are the ones to the right of the dollar signs. And that’s where Norvell’s two Wolf Pack teams have fallen flat. The community has yet to fully respond to the Norvell era as evidenced by an average attendance of 17,181 last year and 16,722 in 2017. Norvell’s Pack teams have yet to attract a home crowd of at least 22,000 fans. Just two crowds have been above 20,000 in 12 home games.

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The first two games against Purdue and Oregon might be the key to getting the Pack’s average football attendance up and above 20,000 this year. One or two wins in the first two weeks of the season could ignite fan interest and send it into a Muss Bus type of frenzy. Two losses, though, might destroy it. If the Pack starts out 0-2 we might not see a decent (at least 20,000) crowd at Mackay until the final home game against UNLV. The biggest reason the fans might tune out the team is the home schedule between Purdue in the home opener and UNLV in the finale is, well, a snooze-fest. How does Weber State (yawn), Hawaii (snore), San Jose State (boring) and New Mexico (dull) sound? The Pack will likely win all of those games but nobody will pay much attention. The same thing happened to Norvell’s first Pack team in 2017. The Pack lost to Toledo and Idaho State in its first two home games and then failed to draw at least 18,000 fans for any of its final four games at Mackay. Even UNLV produced just 17,359 fans.

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This Wolf Pack football team is definitely worthy of your support and interest. The Pack, thanks to the schedule, could be no worse than 7-2 after nine games. Purdue and Oregon are followed on the schedule by glorified scrimmages against Weber State, UTEP, Hawaii and San Jose State. The schedule then only gets slightly more difficult with games at Utah State and Wyoming and a home game against New Mexico. We could be looking at a 5-0 start to Mountain West play. A possible Wolf Pack Mountain West championship will likely be determined in the final three weeks with games at San Diego State and Fresno State and the home game against UNLV. A 10-win season for Pack football? Did you notice Boise State is nowhere to be found on this schedule? Maybe we didn’t learn anything after all from the punch to the gut that was the end of the Pack basketball season.