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1,000 Words: Regional berth the mark of success for Nevada in 2019

Josh Zamora
Josh{ }Zamora and the Wolf Pack are shooting for the team's first NCAA Regional appearance since 2000. (NCAA Photo)

Nevada Sports Net columnist Chris Murray is known to be a bit wordy, so we're giving him 1,000 words (but no more than that) to share his thoughts from the week that was in the world of sports.

* NEVADA BASEBALL HAS ACCOMPLISHED a lot in the last 18 seasons. It has won a WAC championship. It has won two Mountain West championships. It has beaten the No. 1 team in the nation. It has received a $1 million donation to spruce up its stadium. But one thing it has not done in the last 18 years – and this, to many fans, is the most important thing – is play in an NCAA Regional. It has not played on the national stage in the national tournament. And for the 2019 season, which Nevada began practicing for this week, to be deemed a success, it must change that. It must make the NCAA Tournament.

* THAT IS PERHAPS A HIGH STANDARD, but unless you make the NCAA Tournament, especially as a non-revenue sport, it is hard to get traction and the full support of the community. Nevada played some amazing baseball in the MW last season – it went 20-9 in regular-season conference games and 9-15 in all other outings – but its 0-2 showing in the double-elimination MW Tournament overshadowed some of that. It marked the 16th time Nevada has played in a conference baseball tournament. It has yet to win one and garner an automatic berth into an NCAA Regional (its four Regional appearances came as an at-large team in the Big West).

* FOURTH-YEAR COACH T.J. BRUCE said the team’s top goal this season is to win the MW regular-season title. It’s easy to understand why. It’s more difficult to win a regular-season title than a conference tournament. But, it’s more important for a team to play in an NCAA Regional than win a regular-season title. “It’s like 1A and 1B,” Bruce said. “1B is to get into June. I think it’s a really unsuccessful season so to speak – I don’t want to take anything away from a regular-season title – but you want to play in June and give these guys a chance to compete and be one of those 64 teams.” There are far more eyes on the NCAA Tournament than a MW regular-season game, so getting to a Regional is the next step in building the program.

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* AND IT’S BASEBALL. Fresno State won the national title a decade ago. Coastal Carolina won it three years ago. Mid-majors can do damage in a sport as unpredictable as baseball. All you have to do is get in. Yet, Nevada hasn’t done that in nearly two decades, which is remarkable given how much talent has come through the pipeline during that period. Nevada is 23-32 in 16 conference tournaments (seven in the WAC; six in the Mountain West; three in the Big West) and has reached the conference title game just three times.

* POSTSEASON BASEBALL is always a crap shoot, but that’s an odd trend the Wolf Pack is facing. It hasn’t thrived in pressure postseason moments and is 0-4 in the MW Tournament while being the No. 1 seed. The MW made its conference tournament a little less daunting two years ago when it cut the field to just four teams, putting extra emphasis on the regular season. But as important as that regular season is, it’s all about the postseason this year. “I’ve been coming to games here since I was 5 or 6 and when I decided to come here that was one of the big things,” Sparks native Ryan Anderson said of reaching an NCAA Regional. “I wanted to put a banner on the wall and get to a Regional. I was 2 years old in 2000. That was the last we went to a Regional. That’d be awesome to be able to do that in my time here.”

* SO, CAN NEVADA DO IT? Of course. The Wolf Pack lost three of its top four hitters, its Friday starter and its closer this offseason, and those won’t be easy holes to fill. But the starting pitching depth is solid and the starting infield returns intact. Nevada appears to have some impact freshmen, including the highly regarded Owen Sharts, and while an official location for the MW Tournament hasn’t been revealed, we’ll just say the confines will be friendly. “I believe this team has what it takes to do that,” Bruce said of getting to an NCAA Regional. The Wolf Pack is long overdue for a national tournament berth.

* WOLF PACK ALUM Rishard Matthews signed a contract extension last month. He was released by the Tennessee Titans this week. That shows you how much a contract means in the NFL. But the wide receiver wasn’t pleased with his lack of snaps and targets after being the team’s top receiver the last two seasons and asked for his release. He’ll get a fresh start, and some team will pick him up given his production the last half-decade. It’s an odd situation, and could signal the beginning of the end for Matthews depending upon where he lands. Fair or not, most receivers carry the diva label, and it’s a little easier to take that if you’re dealing with a Pro Bowl-level receiver, which Matthews hasn’t been despite solid production.

* MATTHEWS WAS MAKING PROGRESS toward posting the best NFL career for a Wolf Pack alum among offensive players before this detour. That title is probably held by Nate Burleson (Colin Kaepernick also is in the mix). In 135 games, Burleson caught 457 passes for 5,360 yards and 39 touchdowns. Matthews, through 82 games, is at 228 catches for 3,147 yards and 21 touchdowns, so he’d have to almost double those numbers to pass Burleson, which seems questionable at this stage.

* THE SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS WILL start C.J. Beathard against the Chargers this week despite a better option – Kaepernick – still being jobless. The 49ers worked out Kellen Clemens, Tom Savage, Landry Jones, Matt Simms, T.J. Yates, Kyle Allen and E.J. Manuel for a job but passed on all of them. You could easily argue Kaepernick is better than Jimmy Garoppolo, the $137 million man who tore his ACL, opening the starting job. There’s no doubt he’s better than Beathard, who has completed 54.9 percent of his passes while accounting for seven touchdowns to nine turnovers in eight career games. 49er fans would largely welcome Kaepernick back, but it doesn’t appear he’ll never get an NFL job again.

* WOLF PACK BASKETBALL pro day was a rousing success. Nevada welcomed 32 scouts from 20 teams and the players went all-out in practice, as they usually do. It was more a showcase for the program than for individual players, which was probably why the event was held at the Ramon Sessions Performance Center instead of Lawlor Events Center. Nevada got to show off its shiny new practice facility as well as its pro-level players. From its 18-person coaching staff to its facilities to its social media marketing to its caliber of player, the Wolf Pack is basically being operated as an NBA team right now. How long will that last is the big question.

Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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