Granted, making the NCAA baseball tournament was not in the front of Omaha Mavericks coach Evan Porter’s mind when he and his players returned home from a February road trip to find the dome over their indoor practice facility had collapsed during a snowstorm while they were gone.
The Mavs moved their practices into the campus field house, where fielders took ground balls off a gym floor. No complaining was allowed, and the national statistics report this week shows Omaha is No.1 in fielding percentage.
With no true home field, the Mavs were vagabonds in their own city. They played most of their games on a field in a city park and a few others at local high schools. Again, no complaining was allowed, and they went on to sweep the Summit League regular-season and tournament titles.
Monday, they found out they’ll make their first NCAA Tournament appearance on Friday in Los Angeles against No. 1 national seed UCLA.
“We’ve seen some great facilities, and we’ll be playing in another historic ballpark this weekend,” Porter said. “As cliche as it sounds, it’s not the bells and whistles or the multimillion-dollar facilities that make a good ballclub; it’s the players. That’s the way we feel. I think our guys, our team, have kind of proven that this year and have done a great job.”
By Omaha (31-22-1) earning the Summit League’s automatic NCAA bid in its fourth season of full Division I eligibility, the state of Nebraska has all three of its D-I schools in the 64-team tournament. The others are the Big East champion Creighton Bluejays (38-11), who play Michigan in Corvallis, Oregon; and the Big Ten Tournament runner-up Nebraska Cornhuskers (31-22), who play UConn in Oklahoma City.
“I think it’s absolutely awesome,” Huskers coach Darin Erstad said. “People may try to develop rivalries and stuff, but I think it’s great. The better everybody is, the higher the RPIs are and the higher the strength of schedule. It gets everybody excited. I’m pulling for both of those teams, too.”
Creighton coach Ed Servais said he’s not surprised all three teams got bids. He said the college game has always received a lot of exposure in the state because Omaha is the longtime home of the College World Series. Also, he said, the state’s high school format lends itself to player development.
“Baseball in Nebraska is unique at the high school level in that most of the kids play their spring season, take a week off and then go right into their Legion season,” Servais said. “The kids play a lot of baseball. Those kids are playing with the same players in the spring and the summer.”
The Mavs were just 15-35 and fifth in the six-team Summit League last year, but Porter said he sensed he had a group of players capable of contending in the conference this season. Porter’s roster includes 16 junior-college transfers, and 12 of his players are from Nebraska high schools.
The Mavs opened the season at Southern California and won one of the three games, and Porter said that experience will benefit the Mavs on their return trip to L.A. They lost once to the Huskers and twice to Creighton and also played nonconference games against Santa Clara (four wins) Kansas State (loss) and Wichita State (loss).
“Those things are going to make us more ready for when we get into a regional, and here we are,” Porter said. “I feel like our guys hopefully won’t get the big eyes or see a big crowd and think a little bit more than they would on any other game we’ve played in a similar type environment.”
Porter hopes the NCAA bid helps on the recruiting and facilities fronts. There are preliminary plans for a baseball facility, which would make it easier for the program to challenge for more NCAA bids.
“Exciting things are coming in the near future for us,” Porter said.