By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay
A week from today, when the afternoon sun dips below the top of the old oak trees ringing the south and west ends of modest Roadrunner Field, daylight will turn to dusk.
UTSA baseball players will run out to take their positions under the lights.
Given that UTSA’s athletes will be taking the field to start a new season, a wide range of emotions will surge as they prepare to host the Tarleton State Texans in the opener of a three-game series.
One of the most powerful of those emotions for Roadrunners head coach Pat Hallmark will revolve around pride, and the legacy of former players who gave so much of themselves in years past.
Especially the players from last year who have moved on in their respective lives. Jonathan Tapia, Ian Bailey, Chase Keng and Ryan Flores come to mind, in particular.
All of them formed the heart of a team that forged one of the greatest seasons in school history, only to come up agonizingly short of an NCAA tournament bid.
The Roadrunners won 38 games, one off of the school record.
They posted an 11-4 record against ranked opponents, including wins on consecutive days last May on the home field of the Southern Miss Golden Eagles in the Conference USA tournament.
In the C-USA tourney final, the Roadrunners lost by one run to the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, who with the 9-8 victory claimed the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAAs.
On the trip home to San Antonio, the Roadrunners still felt good about their chances of playing in a regional.
They felt that their standing in the ratings percentage index — 37th, bolstered by wins over Stanford, Southern Miss and Texas State — would be sufficient to claim an at-large bid into the 64-team, NCAA field.
As everyone knows by now, the record wasn’t good enough, and the Roadrunners were left out.
Nine months later, it’s clear that the snub still bothers Hallmark. Not so much for his own personal pride, but rather what it meant for the departing seniors, especially Tapia, Bailey, Keng and Flores, who each drove in 50-plus runs in the 58-game season.
“When I think about those four, it still chokes me up a little bit,” Hallmark said Thursday afternoon.
All emotions aside, the Roadrunners will get a chance to run it back, starting a week from today.
Gone are the likes of Tapia, Keng, Bailey and Flores. Returning are four players — infielder Leyton Barry, plus pitchers Luke Malone, Daniel Shafer and Simon Miller — who have been named to the preseason, all C-USA team.
Though the offense may not have the same home-run punch as last year, the Roadrunners are expected to score runs, as Hallmark’s teams always do. Maybe not with with the long ball, so much as with a combination of situational finesse, speed, gap hitting and guile.
The defense, truthfully, probably has some questions. But it should be strong up the middle, where it really counts. And the pitching? Well, the pitching is the primary reason that UTSA has been picked for fifth in the C-USA.
“The (preseason) all-conference team consisted of six pitchers, throughout the league, and we had three of them,” Hallmark said. “So that was nice. I haven’t been a part of that since my days (as an assistant) at Rice (University) when we were going to Omaha (for the College World Series).
“So it was really nice to see, and they deserved it.”
An examination of the UTSA roster and statistics package indicates that 13 pitchers on this year’s team have made at least 10 appearances on the mound in their UTSA careers.
Malone, who posted a 9-3 record with a 2.67 earned run average last season, is expected to lead the weekend starting rotation. He has plenty of experience and can pitch as a starter or as an all-purpose, crunch-time reliever.
Notably, he worked nine innings of relief to beat FAU in last year’s tournament opener.
Shafer (3-1, 3.29) and Miller (4-3, 3.25) are strikeout artists who are expected to pitch in high leverage/late-game situations. Both can load up and throw hard, as evidenced by strikeout numbers that are greater than innings pitched a year ago.
Starting pitchers early in the season are expected to include Malone and Ulises Quiroga, plus newcomers Ruger Riojas and Robbie Maldonado.
Riojas, from Wimberley, is a freshman. Maldonado, who transferred in from Prairie View A&M, is the only left-hander in the group.
“Those four are the leading contenders, at least as of now, to be the starters,” said Hallmark, who believes the pitching could be the best he has seen at UTSA.
In the field, defense up the middle is set, with returning veterans at all the key positions. Fleet Shane Sirdashney, in center field. Matt King at shortstop. Barry, a .347 hitter last year, at second base. Josh Killeen and Sammy Diaz at catcher.
Baylor transfer Antonio Valdez is expected to get a look at third base, along with Isaiah Walker. At first, Texas A&M transfer Taylor Smith and returning veteran Garrett Poston, an all C-USA tournament selection last year, are in the mix.
Both Valdez and Smith once played for Hallmark at Incarnate Word.
As for the candidates to play corner outield positions, Hallmark mentioned transfers Caleb Hill (from Temple Junior College) and Dalton Porter (Texas Tech). Also, UTSA has Walker, a flashy defensive specialist, plus freshmen Tye Odom and Garrett Brooks.
Brooks, a redshirt freshman from Smithson Valley High School, has caught Hallmark’s eye as of late.
“He had a good fall, but some of the other transfers were still ahead of him at the end,” Hallmark said. “But, for the last two weeks, he’s been our best hitter.”
As for last year, the subject of the flirtation with the NCAA tournament is still a sore subject, especially for the coach.
In the immediate aftermath of the bracket announcement, the reasons that UTSA failed to earn the bid were blurred a bit by the raw emotions of the moment. Hallmark said he has since learned that it had to do with two factors.
First, several teams pulled off postseason upsets, rising up through mid-level conference tournaments to knock off more highly-ranked opposition, he said. Hallmark said it happened in “five or six” other times in other tournaments, which pushed UTSA down on the list among teams vying for at-large bids.
“The other (reason), it’s a little harder pill to swallow,” Hallmark said.
He said UTSA’s “pre-conference weekend schedule” wasn’t deemed as tough enough.
“That,” Hallmark said, “is a little harder to swallow, because those schedules are set so early.”
For instance, this season, UTSA will host the Saint Mary’s (Calif.) Gaels for six games in February and the Power 5 Utah Utes for three games in early March.
“Both are traditionally pretty solid RPI teams,” Hallmark said. “But, if they have a down year, should you be penalized for that? Anyway, you could go back and forth, but those were the two reasons I heard.”
All UTSA players can do is go back to work, and, as the coach has said, just calm their minds and try to control what they can control.
But try as the might, he often thinks about Tapia and the others.
“Because that was their last year,” Hallmark said. “For those four guys, that was it. To this day, I still get a little emotional thinking about ’em.”