Editor’s Note: Above image of Mike Stawski provided by the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON, Texas- A team’s preseason ranking does not give you an accurate picture of what a team is capable of.
That is no more evident than in the UMHB baseball program, which was selected to finish 10th in the American Southwest Conference (ASC) Preseason Poll entering the 2021 season.
Despite the low ranking to start the season, second-year head coach Mike Stawski is not affected. He said he’s never really paid attention to the rankings, so his expectations for his squad do not hinge on where the Cru is projected to finish in the conference standings.
“I’m ok with it,” said Stawski. “I’m ok with it for one reason. The way that we play our game. If teams come in unprepared to play us, we will beat them. So I’m ok with some teams not preparing for us. I’m ok with some teams saying, ‘We’re playing the 10th best team in the conference. Let’s get through this one because we have a big weekend next week.’ If teams take us lightly, we’ll beat them.
“We’re just [telling our guys], ‘Hey, keep your mouth shut, do your job, don’t tell everyone what we’re going to be like, just show them and they’ll believe you. They’re not going to believe what you say, but they’re going to believe what they see.’”
For every spring sport, the abrupt conclusion of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 was hard to swallow. UMHB was just under .500 at 7-8 when the season was called off, and Stawski was encouraged by the progress his team had made, though disappointed that his first season as UMHB’s skipper was cut in half.
“Obviously nobody can prepare for what happened,” said Stawski looking back. “There was no playbook to figure out what people have done in the past in these types of situations. It was a great experience from the standpoint of, for the guys that really bought in, they were excited about the new culture, a new voice and a new way of thinking. We filled the stands for every single game, which was something that hadn’t happened in a little bit.”
That “new culture” was something the former head coach at division three Concordia-Chicago spoke of several times while talking with True To The Cru, noting how he and his staff have the goal of creating a program that “gives the student-athlete the best possible experience they could have at the college level”. With UMHB putting such an emphasis on athletics, giving the coaches the resources necessary to build championship-caliber teams, Stawski does not have as much trouble getting recruits interested in the school, because the “brand of UMHB”, as he calls it, is widely known across the Lone Star State.
“The brand of UMHB carries a lot of weight in Texas,” said Stawski. “We’re doing our best to try to have it carry weight in other places. We’ve already signed a kid from Chicago, a kid from Arizona, and a kid from California, so we’re going out trying to find guys across the country that will create the best possible team and give us the best possible chance to do what we did up north and get back to a world series.”
According to Stawski, when you have top-notch facilities, plenty of resources, and don’t have to battle northern weather conditions (not the case in 2021), the key element to building a program that achieves success early and often lies in the players themselves.
“It was just a matter of getting the right guys here,” said Stawski, who has held the title of head coach for eight seasons already. “Between the guys that were already here to the guys we had to go out and find, we just had to find the right combination. And we’re still doing that. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
It certainly does not, ask any coach who has had to ‘rebuild’ a program, but with players like Jeb Zolman, that process is likely to be sped up. Zolman, a fifth-year senior from Humble, Texas, was one of the players that was already a part of the program when Stawski began his tenure. Heading into what will probably be his final season of college baseball, Zolman will serve as the Cru’s do-it-all player, starring two-ways as a starting pitcher and first baseman. Last season, he started 14 games for UMHB, hitting a team-best .382 and posting a 2.82 Earned Run Average (ERA) on the mound.
“He’ll be our most valuable player,” said Stawski of Zolman. “It’s going to go beyond the field. He’s our leader, he’s our voice. He’s going to pitch game one every single weekend, and then most likely, he’ll play first or DH the other two. He’s always going to be a part of the game.”
For those unfamiliar with college baseball, the starting pitcher in game one, also referred to as the “Friday night starter” because most series begin on Fridays, is considered to be the team’s ace. There is no question that Zolman holds that title with the Cru, not only because of his talent, but also as a result of his experience.
Coming back for a fifth season did not come without sacrifice for Zolman, or any of the other seniors who decided to return.
“He’s a guy we’ve talked about a couple of times when talking about this season and the sacrifices that we need to make for people,” said Stawski. “I said it all the time, ‘Do it for Jeb’. He could’ve went to med school, and he skipped med school for a year to come back and play. What you got going, if it’s not important to you, it’s important to him.
“My goal in all of this is to give him the experience that he rightfully deserves and hopefully it impacts him enough that wherever he’s going in life, and he’s going to be an absolute success at it, that he can impact people.”
Winter weather wiped out UMHB’s first games of the season, set to be played on February 21 in Kerrville, Texas against Schreiner, a SCAC school that finished fifth in its conference in 2019. The doubleheader was moved to March 17 due to poor field conditions.
February 26-27 will now mark the season opener, as the Cru face LeTourneau to kick off conference play. The series, set to be played in Belton, will follow the ASC season setup, with a 6 p.m. CT first pitch Friday before a doubleheader on Saturday, which starts at noon.
The key series for the Cru will come at the tail-end of the regular season slate, which spans 39 games. UMHB will travel to Austin to face Concordia (TX) April 30-May 1 in a three-game set. The Tornadoes were selected to win the ASC in the preseason poll.