Been there, done that.
Now can the New Mexico Lobo baseball team finally do more?
If so, it must do something it couldn’t do this season — beat Dallas Baptist University.
“We really wanted to play them again,” UNM coach Ray Birmingham said of Dallas Baptist, the Lobos’ first opponent in the Lubbock Regional of the NCAA Baseball Tournament. “We want DBU. We want Texas Tech again. The University of New Mexico is .500 playing against Texas Tech the past four years.”
They will have to do better to move past this level for the first time in school history.
On Monday, the Lobos (38-21) learned they will play Dallas Baptist and could face Texas Tech this week. The Lobos are heading to the four-team regional as the No. 3 seed and will play second-seeded Dallas Baptist (41-17) on Friday at 5 p.m. DBU, the Missouri Valley Conference champ, swept a three-game series from New Mexico earlier this season in Albuquerque.
Top-seeded and fifth-ranked Texas Tech (41-16) plays host to fourth-seeded Fairfield (Conn.) the same day. The Stags (32-24) won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Friday’s winners play each other Saturday. Friday’s losers also face each other that day in the double-elimination event.
The title game is scheduled for Sunday. The “if-game” (if the losers’ bracket winner beats the winners’ bracket winner) is scheduled for Monday.
The Lubbock Regional is one of 16 in the 64-team tournament.
The winner of each regional heads to one of eight Super Regionals. The winner of each two-team Super Regional (best-of-three series) advances to Omaha, Neb., for the eight-team College World Series.
UNM also played three games against Texas Tech this year, with the Lobos winning once. But this is another level — one in which UNM has struggled.
The Lobos, who ripped Nevada 14-4 on Saturday at home in the Mountain West Conference tournament championship game, are heading to a regional for the fifth time in the past seven years under Birmingham.
Not only have they never advanced to the Super Regionals — the Sweet 16 of college baseball — they have yet to reach a regional title game.
They have won just two games, combined, in those previous four trips — in the first round of the 2010 Fullerton (Calif.) Regional against Stanford and in the first round of the 2012 Los Angeles Regional against San Diego. Overall, their regional record is 2-8.
UNM also went 1-2 in the District 7 tournament in 1962, making the program 3-10 in its postseason history.
Can the drought finally end?
“That’s by far our goal,” Birmingham said of winning the regional. “The key to this is pitching. In 2010, we felt good with the guy we had on the mound with Willy Kesler. We handled Stanford (9-5) and their pitcher, who was a No. 1 pick. But after that, we were sceptical.”
The Lobos lost their next two games — allowing a combined 17 runs — in 2010 and were done.
But this year, Birmingham said his pitching staff is deep.
“We’ve got three bona fide starters who can beat anybody (senior Colton Thomson, sophomore Tyler Stevens and junior Carson Schneider) and a couple of guys in the bullpen who can hold down anybody. We have a shot. We had an even better shot, but (senior reliever) Victor Sanchez went down (Tommy John surgery). He’s our all-time leader in saves at the University of New Mexico, and that didn’t help.”
• After that 2010 win against Stanford put UNM in the winners’ bracket, the Lobos got a huge break when fourth-seeded Minnesota upset top-seeded Cal State Fullerton on the opening day. But the Lobos lost to Minnesota 6-4 and were then ousted by Fullerton 11-3.
• In 2011, the fourth-seeded Lobos lost two straight (to Arizona State and Arkansas) and in 2012, they beat San Diego but were whipped by top-seeded UCLA and fourth-seeded Creighton in back-to-back games.
• Their biggest disappointment came in their most recent appearance in 2013. That year, they were ranked 13th in the nation entering the MWC tournament and cruised to a pair of wins to get to the title game of the double-elimination event. But San Diego State beat New Mexico on back-to-back days to win the league title. It was a sign of things to come.
The Lobos entered the 2013 Fullerton Regional as the No. 3 seed. They lost to Arizona State in their first game and were eliminated by fourth-seeded Columbia.
Expectations were high for the Lobos this season. They were the preseason favorites in the seven-team Mountain West and were ranked 24th in the country in early March.
Then Dallas Baptist came to town.
When the Patriots left, so did the Lobos’ national ranking for the season.
DBU won the opener of the three-game series at Santa Ana Star Field 5-2. The second game was a legendary thumping with DBU pounding Stevens and five other Lobo pitchers for 31 hits in a 33-8 rout.
The third game, however, was the toughest loss of all. The Lobos bounced right back from the previous day’s drubbing to lead 10-1 after three innings. But the Patriots scored in each of the final six innings, finished with 20 hits and won 12-11.
“It did (hurt the most),” Birmingham said of the last game.
While DBU scored 50 runs on 61 hits in the three games, the Lobos still scored 21 runs on 35 hits.
“They beat the dog out of us on that Saturday … but we talked about it after the series, and how we scored (21) runs off of one of the best ERA pitching staffs in the country,” Birmingham said. “We had a chance to win two of the three. We kind of rationalized that and thought about it. And our leaders got together; Cleveland (High graduate, junior) Matt Villalobos and Volcano Vista (High graduate) Victor Sanchez. They rallied our troops.”
The Lobos, a road-weary bunch late in the year, won just four of 12 games in one stretch of April-May, lost the league lead and finished tied for second behind Fresno State in the regular season. But UNM swept three games at home in the MWC tournament. That got them the league’s only NCAA bid — and yet another chance to finally take that next step.